It’s been over a decade since the last time Tennessee was in the SEC Championship Game. The last time the Vols got to Atlanta to battle for the conference title was in 2007, and the man leading the charge that year was Phillip Fulmer.
Since that appearance in the SEC Championship Game, the Vols have had five different head coaches and have had seven losing seasons in 11 years.
It’s been a very bumpy ride for Vol fans, and Fulmer himself has had to watch the unraveling of Tennessee football as a spectator, unable to help right the ship.
But a year ago, that changed.
Fulmer was named the Athletics Director of the University of Tennessee on December 1st of 2017 after John Currie was suspended thanks to a botched head coaching search. Fulmer reset the search, took a few days to identify and interview candidates, and within six days he had found the man he wanted for the job.
Now, Fulmer is hoping the man he hired can bring Tennessee back to prominence.
On Friday afternoon, Phillip Fulmer made an appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show on location at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. The Vols haven’t been in that game since 2007, but Fulmer is looking forward to Tennessee getting back under head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
“I’m looking forward to bringing a football team back here with Coach Pruitt in the near future,” Fulmer told Finebaum on Friday.
Pruitt’s first season ended with a whimper after some promising results throughout points in the year. Tennessee earned victories over two ranked opponents — Auburn and Kentucky — and appeared poised to make a run to the postseason after their victory over Kentucky brought their record to 5-5 through 10 games.
But then Tennessee got blown out against Missouri and saw a similar result against Vanderbilt. Fulmer told Finebaum he believed the team “ran out of gas, ran out of players” in those final two games, and the only way to correct that is through recruiting.
When Fulmer was the head man on UT’s sidelines, he and his staff were some of the best recruiters in the country. The Vols snagged players like Peyton Manning, Eric Berry, Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis, Travis Stephens, Peerless Price, and Leonard Little while Fulmer was head coach. And although players growing up nowadays may not know much about Tennessee’s past, Fulmer knows the prospects today know who Pruitt is.
“They see me now, they go, ‘Hey, did you act? I saw you in The Blindside,'” Fulmer said with a laugh. “It’s four minutes in a movie, but it’s forty years of coaching. They do know who Jeremy is. He’s been on the sideline in National Championship games, they know about his staff. He’s got a great staff.
“If we can get them on campus, we’ve got a chance to recruit them.”
Pruitt has five National Championship rings to his credit as an assistant and defensive coordinator. He was Alabama’s Director of Player Personnel in 2009 when they won the title, their defensive backs coach in 2011 and 2012, Florida State’s defensive coordinator in 2013, and Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2017 while also serving as UT’s head coach in their offseason.
Fulmer earned a national title as head coach of the Vols in 1998, and his Tennessee teams made it to the SEC Championship Game five times in his 16 full seasons as UT’s head coach. So he knows a thing or two about what it takes to have success not only as a head coach, but specifically as a head coach at Tennessee.
For Pruitt, the 2018 season marked his first as a head coach. And Fulmer has been guiding Pruitt whenever he’s needed help.
“There might be something that I recall that we did a long time ago that might help him in a situation,” Fulmer stated. “It might be as simple as an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman or somebody stepping wrong. We can talk about those things, and I think that’s healthy.”
Fulmer himself had a similar relationship with his AD when he was Tennessee’s head coach. Doug Dickey was the AD at Tennessee when Fulmer started his head coaching tenure with the Vols. Dickey was also a head coach at Tennessee and was actually Fulmer’s head coach when he played for the Vols.
When Dickey would come and offer advice to Fulmer, he would listen. And now Fulmer says he and Pruitt have that same type of dynamic.
“(Dickey) would come over when he had something significant to say, and I always listened,” Fulmer said. “And we’ve got that relationship as well.”