By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
For each of his 16¼ years as Tennessee’s head coach, the second Sunday of the football season was special for Phillip Fulmer.
It was the start of Florida game week.
Tension ran high, especially for a 10-year stretch from 1992 to 2001 when Phillip and then-Gators’ coach Steve Spurrier would match wits guiding top 10 ranked teams overflowing with NFL talent.
This past Sunday, on the first day of this year’s Tennessee-Florida game week with two ranked, unbeaten teams meeting on Saturday in Knoxville, Phillip wasn’t quite as on edge.
“I went dove hunting, I wasn’t thinking about third-and-long,” Phillip says with a laugh.
The 2012 season is the start of Phillip’s fourth year away from coaching after winning exactly 100 more games than he lost – 152-52 (almost 75 percent) – as the Vols’ interim head coach for four games in 1992, and then as THE man from 1993-2008.
His ’98 team won the first BCS national championship with a 13-0 record. His ’97 and ’98 squads won back-to-back outright SEC titles, something that no Vols’ coach has done before or since.
There are all the other expected numbers that go along with one of the best coaches in SEC history – 13 of Phillip’s 17 teams finishing in the top 25, nine teams with 10 or more wins, 15 bowl appearances, 18 first-team all-Americans, 70 first-team All-SEC players, 17 first-round NFL draft choices and 91 players drafted.
Of course, there were coaching honors and accolades through the years. But there’s none greater than the one Phillip will receive in December when he’s inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
“I wish I had 10,000 tickets to give to all the people who were responsible for me getting this great honor,” Phillip says. “It’s really a reflection of all the great coaches, all the great players that I had the great fortune to work with.
“And for years, I had an administration that really understood how to support a coach. (School president) Dr. Joe (Johnson) and (athletic director) Doug Dickey were incredible.”
Just about anyone who coached under Phillip say he’s had an impact on their career, from current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe to LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. Cutcliffe and Chavis, as the Vols’ offensive and defensive coordinators, were Phillip’s left and right-hand men.
Cutlcliffe says he has tried to mirror Phillip’s “attention to detail.” Chavis, while noting Phillip’s reputation as a relentless recruiter, notes that his former boss “could coach any phase of the game.”
Former Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who was a Vols’ reserve quarterback in 1984-88 when Phillip was the team's offensive line coach, said Phillip let his staff coach.
"Phillip was very involved in the planning stages on deciding what to do and how to do it," says Sanders, who’s in his seventh season on Kentucky’s staff, his fourth as UK’s offensive coordinator. “But he trusted you in the end to make decisions.”
His players loved his even-keeled demeanor.
“Coach Fulmer brought a passion to the game, but he was also relaxed, which in turn relaxed the players who saw their head coach wasn’t stressed," says U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a former Vols’ quarterback who finished second in the 1993 Heisman Trophy voting, his first and only full season under Phillip.
Phillip’s management style mirrored people he respected, such as the two coaches he played for at Tennessee from 1968-71 – Dickey, who later became his boss and Bill Battle.
"Coach Dickey was never that way as a coach and neither was coach Battle,” Phillip says. “I don't even remember coach Dickey raising his voice. They were businessmen, running an organization and expecting people to do their jobs."
Phillip knew he was a good, solid football coach. But he also clearly understood you won and won big by surrounding yourself with a great staff that knew how to recruit the best of the best and coach ’em up.
"You can take an average player and make him good," Phillip says. “Or you can recruit a good player and make him great. If you have enough great ones, you're going to win."
Fulmer’s second recruiting class in 1994 included a good player that became a great player that attracted other good and great players to sign.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, who played for the Vols from 1994-1997. He earned the starting job late in his freshman season, and went 33-5 overall and 21-3 in the SEC his last three seasons as the full-time starter. He was 3-1 in bowl games and led the Vols to a 30-29 victory over Auburn in the ’97 league championship game,
“I don’t know if there will ever be another Peyton Manning,” Phillip says. “He had an impact, directly and indirectly, even after he left us. He’d come back every summer to work out; he still gives out a scholarship in his name to a student.
“He impacted us when he played, but he impacted us the year after he left when we won the national championship (in 1998), when we almost played for it again in 1999 and almost again in 2001.
“True, we had a lot of great players in those years like Tee Martin and Al Wilson and Peerless Price and so many others. But signing Peyton and the success that he had gave us credibility.”
It’s Wilson, an All-American linebacker who captained the Vols’ national championship team, that not so long ago pointed out the ultimate reason for Phillip’s success.
“He had a passion for Tennessee,” Wilson told Chris Low of ESPN.com. “It’s so different nowadays with coaches going from school to school. There’s very little loyalty in the college game. Coach Fulmer’s one of the last coaches who really had that loyalty.”
Phillip arrived in Knoxville as a Vols’ freshman in the fall of 1968, a country boy from Winchester, Tenn. He wheeled on campus driving a black Pontiac GTO bought by his late father James as a reward for his son earning a scholarship.
His original plan entering college was to be anything but a coach. He enrolled as a history and political science major. He thought about dentistry. He thought about law school and graduated in education.
After his sophomore season, when he realized the NFL might not want a 215-pound offensive guard, he started looking beyond college.
Phillip was team captain as a senior in 1971 on a 10-2 team. He showed enough leadership ability for then-Vols’ head coach Battle to hire him as a graduate assistant.
"In the late '60s and early '70s, the sense of individualism and anti-establishment were going strong," recalls Battle, founder and chairman of the board of Collegiate Licensing in Atlanta. "So it was rare to find someone like Phillip who could command respect of the players and the coaches, and communicate effectively with both."
The one thing that Phillip never had to communicate was his love for Tennessee. He was at his school for 35 years – four as a player, two as a student coach, 13 as an assistant and the rest as head coach.
When he walked into a booster club or alumni meeting, he didn’t dread it. He didn’t hurry in a room, deliver a speech and sprint for the exit when it was over. He arrived early. He stayed late. He shook hands. He remembered names.
These were his people. Tennessee people.
He felt the same way about his players. They weren’t just Xs and Os on a blackboard, fitting into plays and schemes to get more Ws than Ls. They were part of his orange-beating heart.
“There are so many highs and lows of football and most of them are magnified,” Phillip says. “But there are so many things that people don’t know about or never see about coaching that I loved, like giving a walk-on a scholarship or helping a kid through a personal or family issue or helping a kid get his degree when they were always told it would never happen.
“When I had a player come back years later, with his wife and first child and you see him moving on in life and he tells you `Thank you,’ that is as good as it gets.”
Those relationships are what Phillip misses most about coaching. Well, that and the thrill of walking into some of the nation’s hallowed football stadiums and walking out a winner.
Like winning against UCLA in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl in 1997, at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome to kick off the ’98 national championship season, at Notre Dame in 2001 and at Miami in 2003 to snap the Hurricanes’ 26-game home winning streak. And at every SEC venue.
He misses playing tit-for-tat with coaching compadres such as Florida’s Spurrier, who used to verbally jab Phillip and the Vols, because of Tennessee native Spurrier’s early success against his homestate team.
Spurrier was 5-1 in his first six seasons against Phillip, a stretch where the Gators won four of Spurrier’s six SEC titles. For three straight years, from 1995 to 1997, the Vols’ only SEC losses were to Spurrier’s Fun and Gun offense that produced some of the gaudiest offensive numbers in college football history.
But in Spurrier’s last four years at Florida, he was 2-2 against Phillip. In Spurrier’s final regular season game at Florida in 2001 in a game postponed until Dec. 1 because of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the No. 5 Vols beat the No. 2 Gators, 34-32 in Gainesville.
“You almost had to win the Florida game to win the (Eastern) division,” Phillip says. “Both of us really had it going at the time. It was a shame we were both in the same division because we were both teams that could have been playing for the national championship.
“I realized back then and told everybody at the time that winning the division was as hard as winning the conference title before the divisional setup started in 1992 when the league expanded to 12 teams and two divisions.
“Now that the SEC has won these six straight national championships, I think everyone understands what I had been saying, that the SEC championship game is literally the semifinals of the national championship.”
It seems ironic Phillip feels that way about the difficulty of winning the division and the league, because his supposed long-time nemesis Spurrier has said the same thing for years.
But here’s something you didn’t know. Phillip and the man irritated Tennessee fans used to call “Darth Visor” have been friends all these years. Even when Spurrier would say stuff like “You can’t spell Citrus without `UT.’
“There was all this thought we hated each other, but we were friends with mutual respect,” Phillip says. “We had a good, healthy competitive coaching relationship. He jabbed us at times and I jabbed back.
“But he’s a great football coach, a great guy and really good person. Our wives are good friends.”
Spurrier is 67 years old and in his eighth year coaching South Carolina. Alabama coach Nick Saban turns 61 on October 31. Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith will turn 64 before the end of this season. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is 60.
Phillip Fulmer is a young 62 years old, without the stress of coaching since the end of the ’08 season. That’s when Tennessee made a coaching change, thinking it could find someone better than Phillip, whose 2007 team lost in the SEC title game to eventual national champion LSU.
There’s a part of Phillip that wants to coach again, but he admits it has taken time to put the hurt behind him.
“For a couple of years there, I wasn’t the most happy camper around,” he says. “One of my goals was to break (legendary Tennessee coach) General Neyland’s record and I was 21 wins away.
“I wasn’t anticipating the suddenness (of being fired). It happened so quickly. I know this is a bad example, but it was like having a death in the family. I was at Tennessee almost all my adult life. It was such a transition for my wife and daughters, because we looked at our family as part of the Tennessee family.”
In his time away from the game he has loved so passionately, Phillip has doted on his five grandkids, caught up on spending time with wife Vicky, taken golf trips to hook up with some of his former players (“Those are good days,” he says) and stayed in touch with his former assistants.
He’s kept his competitive spirit sharp in the business world as a managing partner in Northshore Management Company, a Knoxville-based company founded by former UT football player Mike West.
“All my adult life, I taught kids it’s not what happens to you, but what you do when what happens to you,” Phillip says. “There were a couple of coaching opportunities that came up I felt weren’t right (reportedly Louisville and Kansas).
“So I made the conscious decision to enter the business world. I’ve learned a lot about business and it’s been rewarding and challenging in another way. I’m enjoying my family. I’m not living a void life at all.”
In the back of Phillip’s mind, though, there’s that lingering thought he has yet to coach his last football game.
“I talked to (former Notre Dame coach) Bob Davie, who was out of the game for 10 years until he became New Mexico’s coach this season,” says an amazed Fulmer. “I asked him, `How do you do that? Tell me about it.’
“Could I go back to coaching? Yes, if the right opportunity presented itself. Once it’s in your blood, it’s something to consider every year.”
He doesn’t even need to submit a resume. All he needs to do is put some of his championship rings and bowl watches on an athletic director’s desk and say one thing.
“Want some of these?”