KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There was a time when Tennessee football legend Phillip Fulmer was taking the brunt of all the jokes from then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier, refusing to fire back, staying as vanilla as possible in the public eye.
What many didn’t realize is that Fulmer had plenty of witty comebacks and cutting remarks about Spurrier and his golf game, but they stayed off the record.
Fulmer, a first-ballot College Football Hall of Fame selection, would always say he represented something a lot bigger than himself, and that “the wind blows the hardest at the top of the flagpole.”
Ultimately, Fulmer got the last laugh in his rivalry with Spurrier as Florida’s coach. In 2001, Tennessee beat the Gators as a 17½-point underdog in the last game Spurrier would coach in The Swamp, derailing Spurrier’s last gasp for a national title in Gainesville and triggering his move to the NFL.
This is now
It’s 20 years later and Fulmer still prefers to keep the battles on the field and keeps his pubic comments pretty vanilla.
But the 67-year-old Fulmer did let a joke slip last Thursday while speaking to the Knoxville Better Business Bureau at a luncheon. It was aimed at one of the most polarizing figures in college football, Lane Kiffin.
Fulmer, in explaining his transition off the sidelines after his 17-year tenure as the Vols coach (1992-2008), cracked that “I did CBS [television] for a couple of years; that was basically to get me out of town while Kiffin was here.”
The room erupted in laughter. Kiffin is still the butt of jokes for many Tennessee football fans who recalled how it was once proposed that a sewage center in Knoxville be named after him.
Fulmer didn’t have any major violations during his tenure, but Kiffin put the Vols in hot water in less than a year in his one season (2009) at Fulmer’s beloved alma mater. An NCAA investigation into Kiffin’s recruiting tactics cast a cloud over the Vols while Derek Dooley was coaching and trying to recruit (2010-12).
Indeed, Kiffin’s short tenure — only a 7-6 record despite having six NFL draft picks, including two first-round selections — led to probation and recruiting restrictions that extended two years into Butch Jones’ tenure (2012-17).
Fulmer was no less pleased that Kiffin chased off two of the Fulmer staff’s elite commitments — quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Tajh Boyd — future stars at Baylor and Clemson.
But seriously, folks
Fulmer did say at his presentation last week that, in all seriousness, he gave up the CBS television analyst role because he missed spending time with his family.
“I had these beautiful grandchildren at the time. There were six of them; now there’s soon to be eight, and I didn’t want to miss the time with them, so I made the conscious decision not to do pro football or take a job somewhere and coach a school,” Fulmer said.
“I was going to New York on Thursdays and coming back on Sundays and said, ‘What am I doing?’” he said. “So, after a couple years, even though it was fun and not hard — how hard is it to look at 18 monitors and them ask you a question and give you 5 seconds to respond? Not very hard at all.”
Fulmer mentioned his role in The Blind Side movie, perhaps tossing out another subtle dig at the nature of Ole Miss recruiting, saying, “The kid [Michael Oher] was coming to Tennessee, just so we’re real clear on that. I just never thought about adopting him.”
But that’s about as controversial as Fulmer gets. He praised former athletic director Dave Hart for helping Tennessee escape a financial ditch, while giving credit to Jones for helping to move the football recruiting culture back in the right direction.
The new boss
Fulmer’s talk to the Better Business Bureau included several meaningful and effective business strategies that provided proof there was far more to his success as a football coach than just X’s and O’s and his keen ability to identify and recruit talent.
“I’m so thrilled to have a chance to be the athletic director and do this,” Fulmer said. “I don’t look at it as a job; it’s a lifestyle. It’s the same thing as being a head football coach. It’s something that’s important to my family.
“Everyone is patting me on the back, and I just hope you feel that way a year from now. Just know you will get my best effort to make this work.”
And you might even get a few more jokes — off the record, of course.
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