Feb. 13, 2009

By Adam Caparell

He knew it had to end some time, some way, somehow. But he never expected it to be so soon, so sudden, so out of the blue.

It was Nov. 3 of last year, two days after Tennessee's sixth loss of the season and Phillip Fulmer, shocked and exasperated, sat down in front of a packed room with a prepared speech. Seven and half minutes later, Fulmer told the college football world, against his will, that he had three games left as the Vols head coach and an off-season of uncertainty ahead of him the likes of which he hadn't seen in over 34 years.

"Being bitter is like taking poison and expecting somebody else to die."

Former Vols Coach
Phil Fulmer

In the world of coaching they say you're hired to be fired, but Fulmer - even in the midst of one of the Vols' worst seasons - thought he had earned more time than Tennessee officials were giving him.

They felt differently.

Officially, Fulmer resigned that afternoon. Unofficially, he was nudged out the door and the passing of national signing day Feb. 4 and the rush of emotions and memories associated with it have allowed Fulmer to reflect on his career at Tennessee. And also contemplate his future.

"I've never had this much free time in my life," Fulmer said.

Last February, Fulmer's schedule was packed. This February it's wide open. He never could have envisioned that in the winter of 2009 he'd be sitting on the sidelines during one of the more enjoyable times on the football calendar. Recruiting season and national signing day always held a special place in Fulmer's heart, but this February his perspectives changed.

"You really don't realize how much you miss it until you're away from it," Fulmer said.

And oftentimes you don't realize how quickly things can change.

A little over a year ago, Fulmer had just put the finishing touches on the Vols' 2008 recruiting class, coming off a successful season in which they won the SEC East. Tennessee gave eventual BCS Champion LSU all it could handle in the SEC Championship game that year and parlayed that performance into another New Year's' Day bowl bid. Nine months before that Fulmer had received a contract extension that was supposed to keep him in Knoxville until 2013. Back in July, Tennessee added another year to the pact.

Pressure was a prerequisite for the Tennessee job and Fulmer knew it. The heat only increased from year to year, but he handled it. Despite calls from pockets of fans and media members that he had to go, Fulmer expected to fulfill the terms of his contract.

Now he has nothing but time.

Tennessee officials brought in the man who led the Vols to the 1998 BCS Championship and two SEC titles after the Nov. 1 loss to South Carolina and laid it out. With the season seemingly spiraling to levels deemed intolerable around Rocky Top, they asked that he step aside.

They wanted to go in a new direction. They wanted a fresh start. A new voice. For the first time since 1968, when he first set foot on the campus as an offensive lineman, Fulmer was no longer wanted around the Tennessee football program.

Phil Fulmer won two SEC titles and the 1998 BCS Championship during his 16 years as Tennessee's head coach.

"It doesn't register," Fulmer said.

Fulmer still questions the logic behind the "decision," four months later. He could have easily been let go after a very disappointing 2005 season that saw the Vols go 5-6, but Fulmer got off the mat and elevated Tennessee back amongst the SEC's upper echelon. He thought, given his track record - given his 152-52 record as the Tennessee head coach - that he should have been given the opportunity to raise the sinking ship one last time.  

"After 17 years, I strongly felt like I deserved a chance to fix it," Fulmer said. "But that's not what they chose to do and I chose not to be a bitter guy. I'm going to go and look at other opportunities."

And the opportunities are starting to present themselves.

When the news came down, Fulmer said to himself that he was going to take six months off to reevaluate things. For the first time since he married his wife, Vicky, he's actually been able to spend some time with her and have a little fun. But six weeks - let alone six months - turned out to be a longer than he ever could have imagined and Fulmer wanted to do something.

He jumped at the chance to do some television work; most recently for CBS College Sports on its national signing day coverage, and the prospects of becoming a regular contributor to a television network intrigues Fulmer. He would welcome the chance to do it for a season or two.

But when he said he wanted to look into other opportunities, he really meant other coaching opportunities.

Unlike some coaches, Fulmer does have hobbies. He can get away from the game. He likes to fish and he's been doing his fair share since the season ended. But he's a coach and a teacher at heart and he misses it dearly. The guy loves to work. A self described workaholic, he's not ready to hang up his whistle.

"I don't consider myself a guy who is going to retire and go fishing," Fulmer said.

The right opportunity - a.k.a. the right head coaching position - hasn't yet presented itself. Fulmer wants to take over a major college program and he has no preference where. He'd just as soon take a job in the south as he would somewhere out west or up north. But he's not going to settle for something. With a track record like his, Fulmer feels he doesn't have to and when the right BCS job becomes available he'll be listening.

In his mind, it's only a matter of time.

"I think a guy with 152 wins, 100 more wins than losses, should have a chance to coach again," Fulmer said.

At age 58, Fulmer thinks he has at least 7-10 years of coaching left in him. He still feels young and the desire to win another BCS Championship drives him. Not because he wants to prove anyone wrong. He just wants to win that badly. He just loves to compete.

But he can't right now.  He had those privileges revoked.

It was a frustrating and confusing time for Fulmer when he stepped aside, effective at the end of the season. The decision caught him by surprise and resigning in front of supporters and all of his players was nothing short of miserable, he said, but the consummate coach he is, Fulmer's trying to make the best of it.

He relates his situation to a friend of his who just happens to be a bishop. Every so often, the church makes the bishop take a sabbatical. And during that time away from the church, he's expected to do plenty of writing, reading, thinking and praying.

Fulmer, away from college football's cathedrals, has been doing it all.

"That's all I'm looking at this is as; as a sabbatical and as a chance to improve as a coach, if I choose to do it again," Fulmer said.

He could have easily gotten into law or the business world after college and Fulmer gave it some serious thought. But he ended up spending more time in the film room than the library and his coaching career was born at his alma mater in 1973. Nineteen years later, he became the head coach of the Vols, something he never even dreamed about. Sixteen years after that, he's looking for a new job.

He's not a bitter man, despite what many think.

"Being bitter is like taking poison and expecting somebody else to die," Fulmer said.

"I've never had this much free time in my life."

Former Vols Coach
Phil Fulmer

And he's still keeping tabs on the Vols. That's never going to change, but he won't comment publicly on Tennessee's hiring of his successor, Lane Kiffin.

"I think they're progressing and it's always interesting to see how people do things," Fulmer said.

Kiffin has some big shoes to fill in Knoxville, and winning the program's second BCS Championship will be a long and difficult road. It was for Fulmer, who reached the pinnacle of the game when many thought he never would. That game, at the Fiesta Bowl, sticks out more than any in his as he reflects on his Tennessee career. As the seconds ticked off the clock that night, and Fulmer searched for Bobby Bowden to shake hands, a 23-16 victory and first ever BCS Championship in the bag, he felt something come over him.

"Everything stopped, stood still, in slow motion, and I felt his presence," Fulmer said.

The presence Fulmer felt was that of his father, who at age 69, died nine years earlier.

It was a surreal moment, Fulmer said, one that sent chills up his spine. Plenty of Tennessee supporters should brace themselves for something similar down the road. Seeing Fulmer wearing anything other than orange on the sidelines is going to be shocking for sure. But you can pretty much guarantee it's going to happen.

A stubborn man like Fulmer, as many in the media have described him, isn't ready to retire to the lake. He's waiting for that right job to open and when it does he's going to pounce on it. And the next time around, Fulmer plans on going out on his own terms.