Sunday, November 30, 2008
In his final 24 hours at Tennessee, Fulmer ran gamut of emotions
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Thirty-five things you should know about the final day and night (and early next morning) of Phillip Fulmer's 35-year playing and coaching career at Tennessee:
1. He walks into the lobby of the downtown Crowne Plaza hotel at exactly 9:21 a.m. Saturday, then walks past the front counter, where the top headline of the local sports section reads, "Handoff to Kiffin ... New coach, 33, known for pro-style offense." Fulmer drops off his bags in Room 317, makes his way to a ballroom for the team breakfast, orders an omelet and, as one of his blot-out-the-sun-sized offensive linemen walks by the table, mentions that 40 years earlier, when he was a freshman at Tennessee, he began his playing career as a 197-pound, sixth-team offensive guard who wanted to be a dentist.
2. Fulmer, who joined the Tennessee staff as a graduate assistant in 1972 and later as a full-time assistant in 1980, was so nervous about his coaching future that he told his wife, Vicky, "Don't buy drapes."
3. That was 152 victories, two SEC titles and one national championship ago. Now, with the drapes finally up, he gets canned after having only his second losing season in 17 years. Shortly after he was fired on Nov. 2, he received a personal note from President George W. Bush.
4. At 10 a.m., the team meets in front of the hotel for a simple walk around the block. Just to stretch their legs. Traffic stops to watch the sight.
5. At 11 a.m., Fulmer is in his hotel suite with more than seven hours to kill before kickoff against visiting Kentucky. He'd usually use some of that time to write personal notes to recruiting prospects. But that's Lane Kiffin's job now.
6. Fulmer empties his pockets (car keys, room key, two black Sharpies, a small stack of 3x5 blank note cards he uses to jot down ideas and thoughts), then plops on a couch and listens as his cell phone buzzes every 45 seconds or so with new calls, text messages or e-mails. Since the firing, he has received more than 1,000 e-mails or letters of support. Answered every one, too.
Now he smiles as he scrolls through the latest arrivals, including another text message from former Vols quarterback Peyton Manning.
Phil Fulmer rode off the field Saturday on the shoulders of his players.
"I'm with you in spirit," Manning says.
7. Fulmer has spoken with former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and former Tennessee football coach and athletic director Doug Dickey, who hired Fulmer in 1992.
Carr and Stallings told him to take some time off. Dickey, Fulmer says, explained the firing this way: "You don't have a football problem. What it is is a marketing issue."
Translation: Fulmer had lost the support of some of the big-money whales and potential whales. As always, follow the money.
8. One possible coaching opening intrigues Fulmer: Clemson. He turns on the suite's flat-screen TV. Figures: South Carolina at Clemson.
9. Fulmer's old man was a night watchman who worked a second job hauling boxes from a factory. Probably never made as much as $20,000 in a single year.
"But a great man," Fulmer says.
Fulmer's first full-time coaching gig earned him $6,000 at Wichita State. Now he'll get a $6 million buyout from Tennessee.
"You'd give the money back to keep coaching," he says.
10. Inside his travel bag is a small box that contains four things that Fulmer absolutely must have with him on the sideline: a buckeye (for luck), two silver coin-sized charms (one says, "Courage," the other, "Wisdom"), and a football-shaped locket given to him years ago by his wife. The inscription reads, "May God give you strength, courage and wisdom. Love, Victoria."
11. Clemson takes a 24-0 lead against Steve Spurrier's team. The Tigers later go on to win 31-14, further improving the employment chances of interim coach Dabo Swinney. A scroll at the bottom of the screen reports the resignation of Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom.
12. Fulmer spends time reviewing the Tennessee game plan until 2:20 p.m., then gathers his things and heads to the mezzanine lobby area, where Donnie Ross, a former Vols baseball player who now serves on the UT Police Department, is waiting to drive him back to campus. Turns out dozens of Fulmer's former players are gathering at the indoor practice field, awaiting his arrival.
13. As Fulmer nears the stairway leading to the main lobby, two women stop him to ask whether he'll pose with their friend Shannon Potts, who is getting married Dec. 20 and is at the hotel, in full wedding dress mode, for a bridal photography session.
"I luvvvvvvvvv you," Potts says as Fulmer smiles for the camera.
14. About a block away from the football offices, Ross has to stop for a red light at the corner of Lake Loudon Boulevard and Phillip Fulmer Way. Fulmer got his own street after Tennessee won the 1998 national championship. "They'll probably take it down as fast as they put it up," he says, smiling.
15. Back on campus, Fulmer's family is waiting for him outside his second-floor office. More photos, then downstairs they go for the impromptu reunion with former players and teammates. One of the first players he sees is Bill Duff, a defensive tackle who played on those Manning teams in the mid-1990s. Duff flew in from New Jersey.
"I was coming in no matter what," says Duff, who played briefly in the NFL and now is the host of the History Channel's "Human Weapon" show. "It was family here. Now it's like a business. The guy wins 10 games and a bowl game in 2007, and now they fire him in the middle of the next season?"
16. Recruiting prospects and their families stare down at Fulmer as they file out of the second-floor main meeting room. He won't be meeting with them today.
17. Instead, he's busy hugging and laughing with his former players and teammates. And he makes sure to get a photo with each one. A few minutes before 4 p.m., he quiets the crowd and says he has to leave for a team meeting.
It's been like a four-week funeral, but I'm not dead, OK? We're not going anywhere. It's been a great run and we told ourselves we're not going to be bitter. Our phone number will be the same. We're not sure what we're gonna do 100 percent, but let's count our blessings to do what we've done.
"I want to say thank you to everybody," he says, Vicky standing at his side. "It's been like a four-week funeral, but I'm not dead, OK? We're not going anywhere. It's been a great run, and we told ourselves we're not going to be bitter. Our phone number will be the same. We're not sure what we're gonna do 100 percent, but let's count our blessings to do what we've done."
18. One emotional moment is followed by another. Fulmer walks upstairs to the meeting room where the players are waiting with a framed print signed by the entire team. You can hear a hair strand drop as Fulmer clears his throat. Behind him is a sign that reads, "Fierce Pride."
"I love you guys," he says. "That will not ever change."
19. On the traditional ¼-mile or so game-day Vol Walk from the football facility to Neyland Stadium, Fulmer leads the team through a corridor of humanity at least five-deep. They hand him thank-you cards, slap him on the back, shower him with "I love you" and "'Preciate you, Coach."
Sixty yards behind him, Fulmer's assistants (few, if any, are expected to be retained by the incoming Kiffin) bring up the rear. Longtime assistant Steve Caldwell looks up to see his wife, Leisa, in the front row. She's sobbing. Beleaguered offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, who moved his family here only 10 months ago, smiles politely as fans shout at him to run double reverses and gain "1,000 yards."
20. Fulmer changes from his pinstripe suit into black rain pants, an orange rain jacket and an orange baseball cap. As his players dress, Fulmer walks to the grease board at the front of the locker room and writes, "Make a memory." Then he sits down in the front row of folding chairs and opens up one of the cards given to him during the Vol Walk.
A member of his Knoxville Police Department security detail approaches him. "Coach, we're proud of you," the officer says.
21. Congressman Heath Shuler, D-N.C., a former UT quarterback and first-round NFL draft pick, walks into the locker room. NASCAR star Sterling Marlin, a UT fan, is already here.
Meanwhile, Clawson waits to take his quarterbacks out onto the field for warm-ups. Earlier in the day, Clawson sneaked home to have birthday cake with his son, Eric, who just turned 7.
22. Twenty-five minutes before kickoff. Team trainers are issuing Gatorade, orange mouth guards, eye black and B12 to whoever needs it. Fulmer walks to the front and says, "One knee!"
They recite "The Lord's Prayer." Later, they recite another verse by heart: the seven football game maxims of legendary UT coach Gen. Robert Neyland.
23. The Vols are 4-7, in danger of their first eight-loss season, but have a 23-game win streak against Kentucky (15-0 under Fulmer).
"Tonight you find a way, or make a way, to win the game," Fulmer says before leading his 25 seniors toward the stadium tunnel.
24. A light, but steady rain falls as Tennessee kicks off to Kentucky. After the kick, student equipment manager Andrew Haag dashes toward the middle of the field to retrieve the tee. He wears leg braces and uses forearm crutches to walk/run.
Thirteen years ago, on the morning of Christmas Eve, Haag was riding in the family car when it collided with another vehicle. Haag's father and older brother were killed, and his other brother was injured. Haag suffered abdominal injuries and a broken back. He was 8. A week after the accident, he received a phone call.
It was Fulmer.
25. Tennessee scores a touchdown (Fulmer goes for it on fourth-and-goal) to take a 7-3 lead at halftime.
Bananas, chicken broth and hot chocolate are waiting for the players when they come into the locker room. Just before they return to the field, Fulmer says, "Let's go kick the Kentucky Wildcats' ass!"
Phil Fulmer, shown earlier this season, was 152-52 in 17 seasons as the Vols' head coach.
26. They do, winning 28-10. The seventh-winningest coach in SEC history gets his 152nd victory, which puts him exactly 100 games over .500.
27. The crowd, thinned out by the rain, cold and Tennessee's disappointing record, serenades Fulmer during the final minutes of the game. He gets a hug from Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, then a ride to the locker room on the shoulders of two of his offensive linemen. His eyes are red and misty as he raises the game ball in his right hand.
28. Inside the closed locker room, the players and staff form a circle around Fulmer. He calls Luke Stocker, the only Kentuckian on the roster, to the middle of the circle.
"I want them to hear, by gosh, how we sing and how we treat Kentucky," Fulmer says. "From the top of our lungs! Here we go, one, two, three ..."
And they sing, "We don't give a damn about the whole state of Kentucky ... the whole state of Kentucky ... the whole state of Kentucky. We don't give a damn about the whole state of Kentucky ... we're ... from ... Tennessee!"
29. Fulmer, still holding the game ball, thanks his team for the effort and for the win. He tells his players -- now Kiffin's players -- that they have a chance to be a good football team. He asks them to work hard during the offseason, to stay out of trouble, to make smart decisions. Then, his voice cracking slightly, Fulmer says, "We're going to be watching you every minute of the way."
30. Irony: If Tennessee hadn't fumbled away the season opener against UCLA, hadn't fumbled away the game against Auburn and hadn't shown up comatose against Wyoming (Fulmer's firing was announced days earlier), Fulmer would have finished 8-4, and his contract would have automatically rolled over. He would have received a raise.
"Wouldn't that have made them mad?" Fulmer says during the postgame news conference.
31. Before the news conference ends, Fulmer says, "To me, they ought to win every game next year. How's that for pressure for the next guy?"
He's kidding about UT's 2009 record, but not about the expectations.
32. Fulmer ducks into a side room and does his postgame radio show. Then he showers, changes back into his pinstripe suit and heads across the street to tape his last TV show. About 30 people, mostly family and friends, are in the studio as the taping begins at 11:43 p.m.
Included in the audience: Andrew Haag's mom.
33. About an hour later, co-host Bob Kesling wraps up the show. Fulmer waves goodbye to the camera just before the red light goes off. He sighs, then poses for photos on the studio set with production staff and friends.
34. At 12:41 a.m. Sunday, Fulmer is officially unemployed. He has coached 204 games, won 75 percent of them and had 1,275 players wear Tennessee orange.
35. Vicky takes his hand as they walk out of the studio. As they leave, she says the truest words of the day and night.
"It wasn't boring, was it?"
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.