KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The hiring of Tennessee Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer as athletic director Friday was a popular move among former Vols players, many of whom believe it’s the first step toward getting the program back to its once-lofty status.
“This is someone who has history, knowledge of the program and understands what it takes to win championships,” said Travis Stephens, a member of the Vols’ 1998 championship team and the most recent Tennessee team to finish a season ranked in the top 10 (2001).
“Coach Fulmer is a man with great structure, and I remember from the time he recruited me through the end of my career, the organization was very good, and Coach Fulmer taught us to do things the right way.”
Chancellor Beverly Davenport made the move to replace John Currie with Fulmer on Friday, announcing her decision at a news conference in the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Center.
Davenport said Currie, who technically is suspended until it can be determined if he can be fired with cause, worked very hard to find a new football coach but “the process was not satisfactory.”
“I was befuddled seeing some of those other names as candidates,” said Mercedes Hamilton, a captain on the 1998 title team. “I don’t want to knock Greg Schiano, but he was out of left field. We need to make a statement, and I don’t think that was the statement we needed to make.”
Indeed, Tennessee fans revolted with on-campus protests and aggressive social media messages as word leaked that Currie was attempting to hire Schiano on Sunday.
Parents of current Vols players reached out to SEC Country and said if Schiano was hired, it would lead to immediate transfers.
Current Tennessee commitments, like Tampa Bay Tech quarterback Michael Penix, said trying to keep up with all the offers and rejections for the Vols’ head-coaching position this week was dizzying.
“It was crazy just trying to keep up,” Penix said Friday night. “I’m still committed to Tennessee, and I know Coach Fulmer is a great man who has had a great career.”
Tennessee freshman All-American Trey Smith tweeted a close-up picture of Fulmer’s national championship ring, an apparent sign of approval for the direction of the program.
— Trey Smith (@smithtrey98) December 1, 2017
“If we want to be a top-notch program, we need a top-notch coach,” Hamilton said. “I thought Coach (Butch) Jones did as much as he could with what he had to work with, but now we’ve got to get what it takes to take the next step.”
Jones was fired Nov. 12 after a loss to Missouri that dropped the program to 4-6 this season after leading Tennessee to its first back-to-back top 25 finishes since Fulmer accomplished the feat in 2006 and 2007.
Stephens said Fulmer knows how to put the pieces in place, and he said he expects former teammate Tee Martin to get a long look.
“The proof is in the pudding, and he’s a proven winner,” Stephens said. “If someone has been there and done that, you follow.”
Travis Stephens, the “Clarksville Comet” rushed for 226 yards in a 34-32 win over Florida in 2001
Fulmer said there’s no timetable to hire a new head coach, but he met with the team Friday night and said he planned to call Tennessee commits and prospects.
“Our first job is to turn around our football program,” Fulmer said. “Our football teams in recent years have struggled for a variety of reasons, but through it all we have been supported by the most passionate fan base in the country.
“These fans deserve teams that make them proud. It will not be easy, and it will take some time, but we will succeed.”