University of Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer is about as “Big Orange” as you can get. He played on the offensive line for the Vols from 1968-71, immediately became a student coach after he graduated, came back in 1980 as Tennessee’s offensive line coach, was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1989, then assumed head coaching duties during the 1992 season and became the full-time head coach in 1993.
Fulmer would then go on to be one of the most successful head football coaches in Tennessee history, winning 152 games, two SEC crowns, and the 1998 National Championship.
Now Fulmer serves as Tennessee’s AD. And while many in the national media may have scoffed at the move when it happened (and how it all played out), the majority of Vol fans were happy to see Fulmer back in a position of power after he was unceremoniously fired in 2008 and replaced with Lane Kiffin the following season.
When Fulmer was hired as AD, many speculated that he would only be the AD in the short-term, with some stating that Fulmer had signed a contract for a two-year deal. Later, however, it was revealed that Fulmer’s contract with the university was much more open-ended, and there wasn’t a stipulation about when he would be required to step down from the job.
And according to Fulmer, he plans to stay as Tennessee’s AD for much longer than two years.
In an interview with Jimmy Hyams on his afternoon sports radio talk show on WNML, Fulmer was asked about how long he plans to be UT’s AD. And Fulmer shot down the idea that it would be for only two years.
“You know, my wife (Vicki) asked me the same question,’’ Fulmer stated in that interview. “I don’t know about a two-year deal. Maybe I did sign something. But I don’t think so. It won’t be 20 years, I can tell you that.
“I want to do this as long as I am being helpful, and if I had to put a number on it, which I don’t have to, I would say five years, six years, something like that.”
Fulmer would go on to add that he “wouldn’t have taken the job” if he had planned on being the AD for just two years, and he stated it wouldn’t be fair to new head football coach Jeremy Pruitt if he left after such a short period of time. Fulmer cited stability as the reason for his more long-term view.
“I think it’s crucial that we have stability all around us,” Fulmer added. “I’m committed to being here.”
And Fulmer’s right: He has the ability to bring stability to a university that has floundered in obscurity ever since he was fired as the football program’s head coach.
It hasn’t just been about the football team since Fulmer’s firing, though that’s what’s drawn the most attention. Almost every major athletics team at Tennessee has reached a low point over the last decade. The basketball team was on a roll when Fulmer was fired thanks to Bruce Pearl, but that came to a sudden and abrupt halt after Pearl was fired (though Rick Barnes has the Vols on the right track this season).
Even the renowned Lady Vols basketball team has dipped to points unimaginable just 15 or 20 years ago. The Lady Vols had their worst regular season since joining in the SEC in 1979 when they went 19-13 in the 2015-16 season before winning three games in the NCAA Tournament and making it to the Elite Eight. Then the Lady Vols exited in the second round of the tournament last season, marking only the second time since 1982 that they failed to make it to at least the Sweet Sixteen.
They haven’t made it past the Elite Eight since they won their last title in 2008,
Baseball has also struggled, and the Vols have failed to make the NCAA Tournament since 2005. The only major sports program that hasn’t seen a massive drop-off at some point in the last decade is the Lady Vols softball team.
In football, basketball, and baseball combined, Tennessee has had 11 different head coaches since Fulmer was fired in 2008. And counting the hiring of Fulmer, Tennessee has had four different ADs in that span as well.
Stability has been a foreign concept at Tennessee over the last decade. But it’s something that Fulmer knows a little bit about. He spent nearly three consecutive decades at Tennessee as a coach from 1980 to 2008, and he’s hung around the program since then. He’s seen the Vols at the highest of highs, and he’s watched them as a bit of an outsider during their lowest point in program history.
If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt at their position, it’s Fulmer.
No, Fulmer doesn’t have a ton of AD experience. He might not be the most savy businessman or fundraiser. But talk to anyone who’s known Fulmer for a while, and you’ll learn one thing: The man knows how to build and sustain relationships. And that in itself is a vital key to being an effective athletics director.
Fulmer has people around him to help him succeed as an AD. He has a support system who trusts him to do what’s right for the university. Most Vol fans certainly seem to trust him implicitly. and most of his former players do as well.
If Fulmer wants to stay five or six years as AD, I say let him. As long as he’s keeping UT’s interests at heart and not his own, then he’ll be successful for however long he chooses to remain AD. That’s all that fans have wanted from their AD ever since Doug Dickey left office in 2002. And if Fulmer can provide that and help make Tennessee sports successful as a whole again, then fans will be overjoyed.
Tennessee is in desperate need of stability. And Fulmer is the most likely person to give that to them.