Phillip Fulmer announces he is stepping down
There’s an element of sameness to any press conference called for the purpose of relieving a coach of his duties.
There are hurt feelings by one party, who is surrounded by a phalanx of loyal family and friends.
There is an authority figure representing the institution, trying to put the best face on an awkward situation (and to get the show over with as quickly as possible).
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it deja vu, but Monday’s press conference announcing the end of the Phillip Fulmer era at Tennessee bore some resemblance to the last time UT conducted the business of changing football coaches.
That was on Nov. 13, 1992. That Tennessee went 10 days short of 16 years between such announcements is an endorsement of Fulmer’s success.
John Majors was the unwilling attendee back in ’92. His press conference came in his 16th year coaching at UT. He was 57.
Fulmer’s comes in his 17th year at his alma mater. He recently turned 58.
Each agreed to a negotiated, but forced resignation after losing at South Carolina (and Alabama the game before).
Majors thanked his loyal fans and expressed what a wonderful place UT was. Fulmer did likewise.
Both coaches made it clear they felt they should have had the opportunity to stay and get things turned around.
Both were lauded for their long service by the university official in charge. Both were invited to coach out the final three games of the regular season, plus a bowl game if they wished.
There were striking differences as well.
At least Fulmer got to experience the toughest day of his career on home turf, in the new media center at Neyland Stadium, surrounded by his players.
Majors’ end was made even more awkward by the fact that the Vols were in Memphis to play Memphis State the next day. The deal went down in the conference room of a budget motel chain, Wilson World Inn.
Fulmer’s buyout is $6 million. Majors got, $600,000.
But the biggest difference for the UT program is this:
There is no Fulmer waiting in the wings after Fulmer.
For the first time since a young Robert Neyland was recruited from West Point to coach the Vols in 1926, Tennessee will embark on a true national coaching search.
UT has quite the history with men’s basketball searches. They happen on a regular basis, like presidential elections. Everybody knows the drill.
When one guy left, there was always the next guy, hand-picked to step in.
I won’t try to name them all, but Neyland, as athletic director, brought former UT star Bowden Wyatt home to coach in 1955.
In 1964, athletic director Bob Woodruff went outside the UT family but he knew his man: his former quarterback at Florida, Doug Dickey. When Dickey bolted, Woodruff tapped one of Dickey’s assistants, Bill Battle.
As Battle faded, UT brought Majors marching home off a national championship season at Pittsburgh. A no-brainer.
And when Majors ran afoul of certain powers, Fulmer, his offensive coordinator, was already in line to replace him. Once again, UT’s search never left the football building.
In fact, I remember standing in a hotel lobby in Memphis 16 years ago and asking a prominent booster about a possible search. Just to cover the bases.
“Coaching search?” he said, laughing at the notion. “There isn’t going to be any coaching search.”
There is this time.
No UT assistant will be promoted. There’s no hero alumnus to bring home.
Unless athletic director Mike Hamilton has secretly lined up his guy — and I’m fairly certain he has not — Tennessee football is sailing into uncharted waters.
Will Hamilton throw big money at an established guy at a marquee program?
Will he try to find another Bruce Pearl, who has succeeded at a smaller school with modest resources?
Will he take a chance on a hot coordinator, hoping for the next Mark Richt or Bob Stoops?
Will he reach out to the NFL and see if there’s a Nick Saban or Pete Carroll who misses the college game?
It’s going to be interesting. It always is in uncharted waters.