If you have read any of my posts over the last year, you will quickly learn that I have made it my habit to refer to Tennessee Volunteers’ head coach Phillip Fulmer as “the Great Punkin.” To some, this may seem an insult—some thinly veiled comment on Coach Fulmer’s girth. This simply is not the case. Yes, the “Punkin” part does owe to the fact that Fulmer favors wearing Tennessee orange, beyond that, however, the name takes on a more personal (and probably less self-evident) character. The “Great Punkin” nickname was always—and for me will always—be a term of endearment.
To me, Phillip Fulmer will always be like Charlie Brown…
Charlie Brown is the quintessential nice guy. Everybody likes Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown likes everybody. He is the proverbial “fuddy-duddy” who has a bit of a pessimistic outlook on life, but at the end of the day believes in the hope of the future—he always keeps trying to kick that football, no matter how many times Lucy pulls it out from underneath him. For the same reason, he is always a hard worker. Charlie Brown is forever loyal to his friends (again, despite Lucy constantly pushing his buttons). These are apt descriptors for Phillip Fulmer.
More importantly, Charlie Brown represents innocence and a healthy amount of naivete'—characteristics which have always been present in the world of Tennessee football, but which now are forever gone…
One of the things that first brought me into the fold as a fan of the Volunteers was the sense of community, the sense of family. Tennessee football began, for me, as an experience of camaraderie, belonging, competition, and unified purpose. What amazed me that first time I ever set foot inside Neyland Stadium in 1991, the first time I ever walked through the old Gate 21, was the fact that this massive throng of people—then 95,000 strong—could be so united behind a single purpose. The fans I saw in the stadium that Fall day came from all walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of situations—yet, they were united. For those few hours, they were a great big (and loud) family. I have personally gathered together with that family, and attended Tennessee games, 110 times since 1991. Phillip Fulmer has been the head coach walking the sidelines for 109 of those games.
In my mind, since 1992, Phillip Fulmer was the head of that family…
I had the chance during the 2002 season to have season tickets which were directly behind the visitors’ bench on about the 10th row. That year, I sat beside a gentleman who had been sitting in the same seats since the 1960s. He told me that, prior to Tennessee moving the home bench to west sideline, it was not uncommon for the coaching staff to come over and chat with fans before, after, and even during games. That is the sort of relationship-based existence that has been associated with Tennessee football throughout its history. It has always been “ours”—something belonging to the family of Big Orange fans. Thus, it was always fitting that “this thing of ours” should be led by one of our own—a lifelong member of the family who can be traced back to the first: General Neyland.
Phillip Fulmer has always been a member of that family…
Now make no mistake, this family can be difficult, unruly, and fickle. This family can get into fights and can band together in factions. Still, the leader of the family is responsible for gently chiding the wayward children, righting the ship, and keeping “our thing” going. Once Johnny Majors left, that thing began to take on different look, as Tennessee began trying to be more “polished” for the national media. The program became more “corporatized” and began to value money more than it had in the past. Throughout the Fulmer years, money became a larger and larger part of the decision-making process, took over as the primary driving force, and grew into the engine that drove the program. Still, no matter how much the financial side of the program grew in its importance, I always felt that Fulmer still managed to keep some semblance of the family feeling in the program. He was always accessible, always fan focused, and never shirked a reasonable autograph or picture request.
In his own way, the Great Punkin was watching over us all…
Now, I am not naive enough to ignore the fact that Fulmer made millions of dollars as head coach, that the business of football was always king at Tennessee, and that—even if the fans hated it—a change which was going to increase earning for the program was a change that was going to happen. I understand that it is a numbers game: numbers of fans, numbers of recruits, numbers of wins, numbers in the bank account. I know all of this. Still, despite this reality, I always felt that Fulmer was sincere in his service to the university, the fans, the alumni, and the State of Tennessee. Sure, Phillip Fulmer wanted a multi-million dollar paycheck at the end of the year, but it always seemed to me that he would have still been the coach at Tennessee even if the pay was much less grand.
I remember the first time I met him. Fulmer came by to give a “thank you” speech to the Pride of the Southland at 6:30 am prior to day three of our pre-season camp in August of 1994. I was an in-coming freshman. The only people on campus at that point were the football team and the marching band. Now, I realize that he was probably—in some limited sense—obligated to show up and thank the band geeks for doing their thing in opening the “T” and playing Rocky Top ad nausem. I say that because the day before the Big Dickey had come by to give his speech which was … well … less than inspiring (and, no, “Big Dickey” is not a term of endearment). Fulmer’s speech, was far more sincere than I ever imagined it could be. Fulmer told us how important the traditions of the Pride were to the team and to the University of Tennessee. Whether he actually meant it or not, he made me believe that he felt our hard work was important to him. I can honestly say that I was inspired. After his speech, he hung around and chatted with members, signed some autographs, and then just hung-out at the side of the field for a while—leaning against the fence—watching us practice. There were no cameras there. There were no big-money donors to be seen. There were no PR events on that early morning. It was just a bunch of band kids, graduate assistants, directors, and the Great Punkin, checking in on how things were going.
Oh, and he followed that speech up with ongoing efforts to make sure the athletic bands had the financial resources to get us to away games comfortably, by urging the Big Dickey to fund the Pride of the Southland’s efforts (as a reference point, it cost nearly $300,000 to send the entire Pride of the Southland to the Georgia game in 1994). Once, on one of the many occasions when Dickey didn’t particularly think the Band was worth the cost, Fulmer just told him “You need to give ‘em the money they need, because we need them…”
Yeah, I am a fan of the big guy…
Now, however, the Great Punkin will be stepping aside at season’s end, and someone else will be taking over the leadership of the program. When that happens, there will be no more Charlie Brown. When that happens, it will be all business.
Make no mistake, I support Mike Hamilton, just like I support Phillip Fulmer. I don’t particularly like Hamilton’s decision but I do agree with his decision. Unfortunately, there are times when we all have to do things we don’t like. As my manifesto from earlier in the season made clear, whether I liked it or not, I had concluded that it was time for Fulmer to step aside—not necessarily because I didn’t think he was capable of winning as a coach, but because the fanbase was simply too divided.
Irrespective of whether Fulmer should have been asked to resign, he has. Thus, we look to the future. I also agree with the general consensus that the next coach should come from outside the Tennessee bloodline. Considering the fact that I have spent far too long discussing the merits of the family at Tennessee, this might seem odd.
One of the things that made life so difficult for Phillip Fulmer over the last six years, was the fact that he—as both a “business” coach and a “family” leader—often was forced to serve competing interests which pulled him in opposite directions. That dilemma was ultimately part of his undoing. Fulmer to the last day, has never attacked his own—yet he has been the brunt of a thousand assaults. He embraced the media and the national audience in an effort to propel Tennessee to the forefront, yet he tried to balance that against the Charlie Brown loyalty he had for his program, his alma mater, his fellow alumni, and his state. He wanted to win more than anything—and worked tirelessly to make that happen. Yet, winning at all costs simply wasn’t an option—given the deep ties he had to the institution and its people. In a sense, he was in the proverbial catch-22.
The next coach should not and cannot be asked to fill that role. The next coach should and will be resolute in assuming the role as the dispassionate and detached CEO of the football fortunes at Tennessee…
That change will—in my estimation—lead to greater success for Tennessee. By the same token, it will forever snuff out the last little light of that Great Punkin innocence that had managed to hang on within the program into the 21st Century. The next leader will simply be “Coach”—nothing more, nothing less. Oh, I am sure that I will give him a nickname—mainly because I give everyone a nickname—but it will be more sterile, more professional.
As for the Great Punkin, well, I hope he realizes how appreciative that I am for what he did for Tennessee throughout his career. I hope he understands that though it is time for a change, it doesn’t mean he has been forsaken. I hope he still thinks of Tennessee as “home” because—as former UT Chancellor and professor Jack Reese once told me “Home is the place where they have to take you in, even when they don’t want to.” I hope Coach Fulmer realizes that he will always be a Tennessee legend.
Even more, I hope that the fans—the family—show him that they feel that way by sending him off with the fanfare, respect, and honor he has earned—that he deserves.
I realize that this has been a terribly sentimental, naive, emotional, and even childlike discussion of Coach Fulmer’s retirement. At the end of the day, it is little more than a change in a single position at the University of Tennessee. I realize this will probably leave me labeled forever as a homer. There have been more than enough analytical glimpses at Fulmer’s resignation—I’d just be piling on. Thus, I’m just sort of shooting from the hip here. I realize it’s a bit sappy, but, it’s what I wanted to say.
I didn’t write this because Mike Hamilton wants everyone to honor Coach Fulmer and send him out in a manner befitting his service. With all due respect to Mike Hamilton, I have donated enough money to the athletic department at Tennessee that I really could care less what he wants me to do.
I didn’t write this because I felt obligated, or because I felt I owed it to Tennessee or Coach Fulmer.
I wrote this because it is what I sincerely believe—what I feel.
This is a turning point for Tennessee. I believe that it is one which will lead to great things—there is so much hope for the future. I also have faith that Mike Hamilton will find the best coach for the job and that Tennessee will be back on top soon. I have no fears about the future.
Still, I will miss the Great Punkin side of Tennessee football. I will miss the last vestige of the old-school style of team pride, collective will, camaraderie, and devotion to alma mater.
I will miss Charlie Brown…
Images Courtesy of: Access North Georgia • Knoxville News Sentinel / Amy Smotherman-Burgess • Snoopy.com • Smokey’s-Trail
6 Responses to “Goodbye, Charlie Brown… (Lawvol’s Thoughts on Coach Fulmer’s Departure)”
Leave a Reply
Additional comments powered by BackType