UT coaches talk about the Wyoming game, the team and what they're doing to prepare for it. Watch »
Coach Fulmer takes questions from the media following his announcement that 2008 will be his last season as head coach for the Tennessee Volunteers. Watch »
Ramon Foster and Eric Berry react to Coach Fulmer's announcement Monday that he will be stepping down at the end of the season. Watch »
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After 201 games, 150 wins, two SEC championships and a national championship, Phillip Fulmer’s tenure as head coach at Tennessee is down to three more regular-season games.
During an emotional — and at times confrontational — press conference held a few yards from the Neyland Stadium turf where Fulmer began his career, the embattled Tennessee coach announced he would not return as the Vols’ coach for an 18th season.
“Our Tennessee family is united in its goals, but divided in the right path to get there. I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided,” Fulmer said during a nearly 7½-minute prepared statement he read before media, family, friends, donors, coaching staff and entire team crammed into Neyland Stadium’s media center. “That is why I accept the university’s decision that this will be my last season as Tennessee’s head football coach.”
Athletic director Mike Hamilton complimented Fulmer’s character and accomplishments in 28 years as a coach at Tennessee, but said he ultimately decided the program needed to move in another direction.
“Our discussions leading to coach Fulmer’s announcements today did not come without great consternation or thought,” said Hamilton, who acknowledged Monday’s announcement was hatched in the last 24 hours. “But in my opinion, it’s the best solution given our current circumstances.”
Those circumstances — a second six-loss season in four years, the possibility of the most losses in Tennessee history and growing fan discontent — were the ultimate factors in the decision to oust Fulmer, who began the season as the longest tenured coach in the SEC.
Hamilton declined to name one specific factor that led to Fulmer’s dismissal, saying “It’s a process.”
Fulmer will receive his entire $6 million buyout, although the two sides are negotiating a timeline for payment that would extend past the 48 months stipulated in Fulmer’s contract, athletic department spokeswoman Tiffany Carpenter said.
According to Hamilton, UT has $7 million in cash reserves that could be used to cover Fulmer’s buyout, which is to be doled out in monthly installments.
Fulmer will remain coach for UT’s final three regular-season games, beginning with Saturday’s homecoming game against Wyoming at 1 p.m. Fulmer also could choose to coach the Vols in a bowl game, should the Vols become bowl eligible by winning those final three games.
UT’s assistant coaches also are entitled to buyouts if they are not retained. Coordinators would receive two years’ pay, while assistants would get one year’s pay. If those coaches take other jobs, UT is only liable for the difference between their salary at UT and their new job.
As part of Monday’s announcement, Hamilton left the door open for Fulmer to remain at Tennessee in some capacity, either with the university proper or within the athletic department.
“What we want him to do is be in a role that can benefit the institution, whether it’s with the institution at large or the athletic department,” Hamilton said. “But one also that he can enjoy and feels like he can contribute to. Coach Fulmer has many skills. He’s an extremely talented individual, and I feel very strongly that he can have a significant impact on our university for years to come if he chooses to do that.”
Fulmer said he would reflect on that opportunity after the season as well as the possibility of coaching elsewhere.
“I’m a football coach,” Fulmer said. “I’ll look at that route possibly. I do appreciate the opportunity that’s been extended (by UT).”
UT will begin a national search for a new coach immediately. Hamilton declined to go into specifics about what he’s looking for in Fulmer’s replacement, saying, “This is more about Phillip today. We’ll talk about those kinds of things at another time.”
UT’s regular-season finale Nov. 29 at home against Kentucky will be “Phillip Fulmer Day,” Hamilton said, to allow fans and former players to honor Fulmer. In fact, one of the reasons UT made its announcement today, Hamilton said, was to be able to honor Fulmer during the Vols’ final three games.
Speaking on behalf of the team and assistant coaches, senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster said the way UT handled Fulmer’s dismissal was unfair to his coach.
“Tennessee is a family,” Foster said. “We take care of each other. That right there wasn’t very stand-up of Tennessee. . . . This guy spent more than some of my aunties’ and uncles’ lives coaching and being at this university. That’s not a way for him to go out. He should go out on his own terms.”
Players marched en masse from UT’s football complex a few blocks away to arrive in the stadium 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. press conference. Some grumbled, while others interjected, including wide receiver Josh Briscoe, who asked Hamilton during the press conference why it was more important “that we make a dollar than it is to keep a tradition and keep the Tennessee family the way it’s been for years.”
Hamilton responded by saying Tennessee’s tradition “does have to remain at the center of all of our decisions.”
Dating back to his time as an offensive lineman at UT 1968-71, Fulmer has been a large part of that tradition.
After graduating from UT, he stayed on as a student assistant coach for two seasons before coaching offensive line and linebackers at Wichita State 1974-78. After spending one season as Vanderbilt’s offensive line coach, he returned to Tennessee first as offensive line coach and later offensive coordinator before being officially named head coach Nov. 29, 1992.
Fulmer, whose overall record stands at 150-51 and his career winning percentage of .750 ranks third among active college coaches with at least 10 years experience, enjoyed an almost unprecedented run of success early in his career. He won 10 games in four of his first five seasons, as well as his only two SEC titles back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, when UT also won its first consensus national championship since 1951.
Since 1998, though, the Vols have failed to win an SEC championship despite winning the SEC East in 2001, 2004 and 2007.
Fulmer spoke openly about his success, as well as a belief that he could help the program rebound as he did after UT finished 5-6 in 2005.
“I am more than confident that our staff and our players will turn this trend around. Our history proves it. Our recruiting for this year proved it,” Fulmer said. “I have invested a lot of my life into this university and wish nothing but the best for its continued success. And I will help my successor if needed, or asked for in any way possible. I love this university, and I hope everyone knows that beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
This season, UT is 3-6 and 1-5 in the SEC this season, and a loss to Wyoming, Vanderbilt or Kentucky would tie Tennessee’s worst-ever loss total of seven, set in 1977. And, at least for Hamilton, that removed any doubt as to Fulmer’s future as head coach.
“This 2008 season has not gone as well as anyone would like,” Fulmer said. “That includes me, our coaches, our players, our administration and our great fans. Many fans have been supportive. Some have been angry.
“All of us are disappointed.”