Mixed Emotions Reign
As I was making my breakfast shortly before 11 a.m. (I don't have class on Mondays...), I begin to hear my phone buzzing uncontrollably. Now I'm a pretty popular guy, but not that popular. I'm thinking something's up, like maybe Tennessee had made a move. I open it up to read...
"After 16 seasons, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer will announce at 5 p.m. today that he is stepping aside at the end of the season."
My first reaction is to obviously find some outlet to see if it's true or not, and I find VolQuest with the news. I start getting more texts from people telling/asking me about it. I don't really know what things were like on campus because I didn't ever get on campus but I do know word got around real quick amongst the students.
As I listened to the Sports Animal here in Knoxville while doing some schoolwork and waiting for 5 p.m., I had a number of things running through my mind. Here is a guy who's spent basically his entire life serving this University and this football program and he has to go out like this. Phillip Fulmer is the only head football coach at Tennessee that I've really ever known. How will it look for me for someone else to be running it? What will happen to our all our recruits? Is anybody gonna transfer?[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="85" caption="Fulmer"][/caption]
Let me reiterate: Phillip Fulmer is the only head football coach at Tennessee I've ever known. I knew it would have to end someday, but like this?
Watching that press conference was torturous. If you didn't find that press conference hard to watch, I might have to question you as a Tennessee fan. Seriously. It was tougher than watching any of our games this year, and that's obviously saying something. At first I could hardly even look at Tuesday's News-Sentinel, which had a front page close-up photo of Fulmer fighting off his own tears.[caption id="" align="alignright" width="217" caption="2008 has been that kind of season, but who really expected this??"][/caption]
Seeing Fulmer up there sincerely saying what he had to say, I found myself fighting off tears. And I DO NOT cry. Ever. It became painfully obvious -- and Brent Hubbs and Chris Low said this on local news shortly after -- that Fulmer was more or less fired. He said he expected to turn it around next year. I still hope and think it was a mutual decision, and that's probably what I'll accept as truth for my own psyche.
Now I've had a few laughs at the expense of our team this year and at the state of our program, but I hated where it was. That said, I made sure not to ever be too hard on Fulmer, because he's the only coach I've ever known here and because of what he's done for the entire University of Tennessee.
After the loss to South Carolina Saturday night, I knew there was no way he could survive this season. Close losses are one thing, but not even being competitive against half the SEC and losing to a lower-level Pac-10 school are a different deal. I knew this day was going to come, but I wasn't thinking it would be Monday. Honestly I'm not sure how ready I was for it.
Being a positive guy, I'm trying to find reasons to be positive in my head while deep down in my heart I hurt for the man and his family (I'm 99% sure I have a class with the daughter that's still in school) and the players, who I think feel some anger towards the fan base, as being a cause for all this. I generally see a handful of them around campus on Tuesdays. This Tuesday? Probably no more than two. And I must say they have a right to be pissed off...
But there are reasons to be positive, to be happy. For starters, so far only one of our twenty-something commitments have officially bailed. Now, I'm expecting there to be more, and really the only hope for most of the offensive guys is keeping Latrell Scott and Stan Drayton on board. That remains to be seen. Tajh Boyd, because I think he knows he can start next fall, and both the junior college defensive tackles remain just about in stone as well.
Secondly, despite this have to end with a potentially bowl-less, sub-.500 SEC record, Fulmer will and should get the honoring he absolutely, 100%, without a doubt deserves this weekend against Wyoming and three weeks from now against Kentucky. I for one plan to cut my Thanksgiving break short to drive back up from Memphis to be there for Fulmer's last game in Neyland Stadium. I can only hope the rest of the fan base -- no matter how divided it really is -- chooses to do the same.[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="258" caption="Fulmer brought home the 1998 National Championship, which now seems like it was forever ago..."][/caption]
Finally, let's be honest. Would Fulmer have turned it around? We'll obviously never know, and many will argue that a guy who's done what Phil's done for this University should be allowed to stay under his own terms, much like Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Joe Paterno at Penn State (really though, how much real coaching does JoePa really do? c'mon people...) have been able to do. Florida State was in the ACC race til this past Saturday and Penn State appears to be headed to an unbeaten season and a Big Ten title.
But the SEC isn't the ACC or the Big Ten. I don't have much reason to believe that Tennessee was going to turn anything around with Alabama returning to power and Florida, Georgia, LSU, and the rest of this excellent league. Fulmer has had his struggles against Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, the last two meetings with both being total routs. Was he really going to be able to turn it around playing these two guys on a yearly basis?
There are probably many people who wanted Fulmer gone who now suddenly change their minds, asking how Mike Hamilton could have done what he's done. I'm not sure he had a choice. When you have widespread booing (that/whom I vehemently boo) and fans selling their tickets to Alabama fans to the point where there's easily over 25,000 of them in every section of the Stadium then you have apathy.
I was talking with a friend of mine who goes to Auburn Monday afternoon and other than sharing our pains of really bad football seasons, I told him I hope it doesn't ever get that bad for them as it was for us in terms of fan apathy. It's been so terribly evident this year. You could even see it this past Saturday night in Columbia - the orange that was there was sparse and mostly gone by the fourth quarter.
I would argue that this apathy was more damning to Fulmer's cause than his 3-6 record and his team's lack of competitiveness in the Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina games and lack of improvement through the course of this season.
So who's next? That's the (multi-)million dollar question. Mike Hamilton has a tough job ahead of him, and I hope he finds the right man for this job. Who do I want to see as Tennessee's next coach? I'm not going to answer that yet, though I know very well who my answer is.
I won't get into all that because this season isn't over yet. As bad as it sounds for a program like Tennessee, I really, really, REALLY want to make it into a bowl game this year. For Coach Fulmer. For the players. I want Coach Fulmer to go out as a winner -- literally. Obviously he's won so much here and done so much that he's a Tennessee football legend no matter what. But I want him to win his last four games here, even if the fourth is in Memphis or Shreveport.
Whether you wanted him gone or not, take one of these last three/four games and support a man who's committed his life to this University and this football program. Throw the records and whatever else out the door -- the man DESERVES it.
Images Courtesy of: SESB • Amy Smotherman-Burgess (GoVolsXtra) • Tennessee Official Athletic Site
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