ATHENS — Yes, Phillip Fulmer is aware that he and the school he still loves are always pointed to as the cautionary tale.
Fulmer’s name is invoked often when a school is debating whether to make a coaching change. Look at what happened to Tennessee after they forced Fulmer out, it’s said. Do you want that to happen?
“Yeah, I hear that everywhere I go,” Fulmer said in an interview. “But we’re through that. There’s no reason to re-hash all that. I think we’re on a good track now, and it just took us a long time and a lot of misery to get there. But yeah, I’m very aware of all that.”
The requisite reminder for those who need it: Tennessee forced out Fulmer in 2008, nearly a decade after he coached his alma mater to a national championship. Fulmer, in 16 years as head coach, also won two SEC titles and six Eastern Division titles, the last coming the year before his dismissal.
Since then, Tennessee has cycled through three head coaches – four if you count interim head coach Jim Chaney (now Georgia’s offensive coordinator) late in the 2012 season. The Volunteers have had just three winning seasons and won zero division titles. But the reason for Fulmer saying “we’re through that” is because Butch Jones coached the Vols to a nine-win season in 2015, the program’s best mark since Fulmer’s second-to-last season.
Things may have turned for Jones this season when his team rallied from 21 points down to beat Georgia, which ended up firing Mark Richt after 15 seasons as coach. Fulmer – whose .745 winning percentage at Tennessee was nearly identical to Richt’s .740 percentage at Georgia – was asked what he thought when he saw Richt’s firing and subsequent hiring at Miami.
“I’m really proud that he landed on his feet,” Fulmer said. “I was disappointed that he left Georgia, but at the same time this world has changed a lot. We basically have corporatized college football, which whether you want it there or not that’s where it is. The amount of dollars that are being paid to coaches, and the expectations that are out there, and the truth of it is they just get tired of you after a while.”
“If you’re not winning every year, and winning a lot, having a good season, a really good season, a coach in this day and age is kind of forced to look around,” he said. “And the university is looking around too.”
Fulmer said he knows Kirby Smart, whom he coached against for several seasons when Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Fulmer called Smart after he got the Georgia job, and the pair got around to talking about the adjustment from assistant coach to head coach.
“He’s a heck of a young man, I know that. Obviously a good coach,” Fulmer said. “I talked to him, he seems to be conscious of managing his time, and focusing on the right things that he needs to focus on. It’s not a matter of getting the team to a winning place. Much like what I inherited, he’s got to take it to another level.”
Fulmer laughed again.
“That’s sometimes a harder job than just winning again,” Fulmer said. “He’ll do great. They’re in a great place. They should win. And he knows he’s got to win a lot. That’s the way it is.”
He laughed one last time, adding one more thought.
“I wish him luck,” he said. “Lots of luck.”