KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee’s leadership crisis is very real, but there’s a degree of business as usual about it.
Vols athletic director Phillip Fulmer pointed that out to the audience at the Better Business Bureau of Greater East Tennessee’s annual banquet, unaware university president Joe DiPietro was about to rock the boat again.
“We lost our way the last seven or eight years,” Fulmer said, adding that “leadership matters, four presidents in six years …”
Tennessee is on the verge of another president. DiPietro is expected to leave before his contract expires in June 2019, the process likely accelerated by his dismissal of former chancellor Beverly Davenport.
That leaves Fulmer as the most stable facet of the Tennessee administration.
Fulmer, a first-ballot College Football Hall of Fame coach who went 152-52 from 1992-2008 while winning two SEC titles and the 1998 national championship, explained how he plans to build a strong culture.
Phillip Fulmer on communication and trust
“There’s four principles we’re working on right now, four pillars,” Fulmer said at the luncheon. “One is communication. I tell my people, ‘I do not want to be surprised.’ We stay in tune to what the message is.
“Trust. I’ve been there 4½ months, it’s not long enough. Trust is earned over a period of time.”
New Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt made it clear recently how much he trusts Fulmer, going as far as to say others are “jealous” he gets to work for an athletic director with Fulmer’s expertise.
Fulmer has said he will demand success from his coaches across the board.
“I went to their offices, went to their facilities and said, ‘What do you need — not, what do you want, but what do you need — to compete in the Southeastern Conference?’ ” Fulmer said.
Communication and trust are indeed important to every organization, but Fulmer said there is more.
Phillip Fulmer on why warmth matters
“The other two pillars — warmth, and that’s one thing we darn sure haven’t had around the athletic department,” Fulmer said. “Everyone has been in self-defense mode.
“Warmth means we care about you, we care about each other and we care about our student-athletes.”
Fulmer had the opportunity to gauge the athletic department temperature for eight years after he was ousted in the midst of the 2008 season, less than one year removed from the SEC title game.
Fulmer didn’t rejoin the administration in an official capacity until he was appointed special advisor to the president in June 2017.
Tennessee lost a lot of football games and national respect in the time Fulmer was away, many of the problems triggered by Lane Kiffin in his one year at the helm.
Kiffin’s staff committed several violations that led to a lengthy NCAA investigation and resulted in sanctions.
Former chancellor Jimmy Cheek struggled to manage that crisis, along with the national black eye that came with a botched Title IX lawsuit and stripping Tennessee women’s athletics of the Lady Vols name.
Phillip Fulmer on why intensity matters
Fulmer was more than ready when Tennessee came calling for help, and that sets up his fourth business pillar.
“Intensity,” Fulmer said. “You can put those [pillars] in any order you want to. To be the very best in your chosen field, academics, training room, field maintenance, what that translates to is every day you get up to beat Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
“We think that culture is important, and we’re in the process of establishing our culture.”
Most fans remember how Fulmer encouraged players from the sideline, often clapping regardless of the result and talking calmly to them even after miscues.
Fulmer, however, was a ferocious competitor who worked long hours and was tireless on the recruiting trail, just as he’s now investing himself into the athletic department.
“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.”