Editor's note: Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer has written this guest column in response to Tuesday's column by sports editor John Adams:
Most college football fans visualize the head coach pacing the sidelines on Saturday afternoon. But the truth is that our hardest work is done far from the view of fans, sportswriters, or television cameras.
In my 30 years of coaching, my proudest victories have come in places much quieter than Neyland Stadium - they've come when departing seniors stop by my office the day before graduating or when mothers send notes of thanks, acknowledging that the immature boys they sent to Knoxville have come home as responsible young men.
Those are the moments that are the greatest moments in coaching and the importance compels me to do something I have never done in my career - respond directly in writing to a negative column in the newspaper.
In Tuesday's <I>Knoxville News-Sentinel</I>, you may have seen John Adams' column attacking my character and my leadership. We live in a free country, and Mr. Adams has built a successful career speaking his mind - that's his right. But the readers of the <I>News-Sentinel </I>have a right to know what Mr. Adams doesn't know, as well.
Mr. Adams has never sat next to me in a prospect's living room, looking his mother or grandmother in the eyes and promising to treat the young man like he was my own child - giving him tough love when necessary and an opportunity to straighten up when that's in order. It is a promise I take seriously and will never abandon to please any columnist.
My first job as a coach is to be an educator and a mentor. That's why I have dedicated my professional life to football on the college level and my private life to charities like the Jason Foundation that prevents teen suicide, and the Boys and Girls Club that touches the lives of today's youth at a very early age.
At the flagship university in my home state, I am expected to run a program that succeeds on the field - but I am also obligated and committed to doing my best to help every player become an educated, responsible adult. We don't win every game and we don't succeed in grooming every young man, but make no mistake that my first and foremost priority is the growth of our young men as well as winning football games.
Unfortunately there is no template for helping young people grow to be well-adjusted, responsible adults. I have four children of my own, including a varsity athlete, and like any parent can tell you, each child is unique and each one requires different parenting. The same is true of our football players. The vast majority of our players come to UT and have a great experience, enriching our campus community, and leaving it better than they found it. They all have needs along the way - in the case of a very small number of them, they need a good dose of discipline and accountability.
Since I have been the head coach at UT, I have learned a great deal about mixing "tough love" and encouragement. The hundreds of players we have graduated will gladly attest to both - they have all loved and despised me at different points in their college days. I have kicked some of our most talented athletes off the team when I thought it would do them the most good as individuals or they were damaging our goals as a team. I have taken the heat from partially-informed pundits when I gave others a second chance. I accept that role with honor and humility; it's what an educator does.
It is on this point that I feel most compelled to take issue with Mr. Adams' column. He is certainly free to criticize my football strategy - during my tenure our program has won more games than 95 percent of all other major college programs, but his criticism on that is fair game. He is free to critique our team's appeal with our fans - we have ranked no worse than fourth in attendance in the nation every year I have been head coach, but he's within his rights to chastise us for that too. He is free to say that my best days are behind me - our most recent team finished first in what was the toughest SEC East in two decades, but I accept his criticism on that as well. What I will not accept is Mr. Adams questioning my integrity, my sense of fairness, or values as a man.
At no time in my tenure has a player's football skill or athletic success been a factor in the way he was disciplined. Never. Our internal discipline is based on one factor alone: the course that is most likely to help that individual young man make amends and get his life straight. We make these decisions after much deliberation and with the input of administration, professional staff, counselors, and when necessary, law enforcement. This is not the easy way to mete out punishment. It requires judgment and leadership to keep the entire team focused and respectful of rules and basic morality, but it is the method that best serves the interest of our young men. In my 15 years, I've undoubtedly made some mistakes, but I try to do what I think is in the best interest for each young man.
It should be noted this is not the first time Mr. Adams has raised this complaint with limited perspective. Thirteen years ago I suspended a young man for two games based on a troubling off-the-field incident and Mr. Adams wrote that I should have kicked him off the team instead. I knew that young man better than Mr. Adams did, and today he is not only a UT graduate, but a sergeant with the Knoxville Sheriff's Department, putting his life on the line for all of us everyday.
Our program, like almost any student group at any major university, has had more students find trouble than any of us in collegiate administration desire. As a parent myself, I routinely lose sleep worrying about the 100 or so young men put in my care. And like any educator, I want all our students to succeed all the time. I'm sure Mr. Adams wants that, too. But from inside the university halls looking outward, that job is a lot different than it looks from the press box where Mr. Adams sits.