Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess
NASHVILLE - Heading for the locker room underneath the stands in Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer smiled and waved to a group of fans who spent a few more minutes in the bitter Nashville air to pay their respects.
Those fans were the latest voices to lend support and offer thanks since athletic director Mike Hamilton announced Nov. 3 that Fulmer would not return for an 18th season.
Following a 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt in his penultimate game as Vols coach, Fulmer said he appreciates the support, even if it doesn't do much to lessen the sting of what happened nearly three weeks ago.
"We've had a lot of people who have called and e-mailed and faxed and written lots and lots of notes," Fulmer said. "I do appreciate it. It makes you feel warm about it, but it doesn't make you feel any better."
Moments after leaving the field, Fulmer spent much of his postgame press conference addressing the emotion surrounding his ouster.
"I told some good friends it's been like a three-week long funeral in some ways," he said. "I don't think I would encourage any athletic director to do it that way. That's made it tough on everybody.
"It's been something our kids … I tell you what, I've got to give them a lot of credit. They've continued to fight through it."
Despite losing to Wyoming 13-7 in its last game, Tennessee jumped on Vanderbilt in the second quarter with 20 points and held on with its defense.
Senior Robert Ayers, echoing players' comments over the last three weeks, said the Vols are playing for Fulmer in their final games.
"It gives you more of a reason. We know this is coach's last two games at this school, and we want to send him out on a good note," Ayers said. "We have a lot more motivation. Not saying we weren't motivated the first 10 games. This is coach's last two games. There's a little more motivation to go out there and play better."
Despite the ultimate outcome, Fulmer said, he's not bitter about Hamilton's decision.
"A good friend of mine told me, and it's true, bitterness or resentment is like taking poison and expecting somebody else to die," he said. "I'm not going to live that way. I just choose not to. Certainly I do think if we'd been given the opportunity then we would have turned it around and gotten to where want to be. I believe that with all my heart.
"There's a lot of good young players on this football team," Fulmer said. "Certainly the next guy's going to have - I shouldn't say that - a real good opportunity. It is what it is."
For most of the season, it's been a downward spiral.
The Vols opened the season with an overtime loss to UCLA on Sept. 1. Then came a 0-3 start in SEC play and a three-game losing streak that UT finally snapped on Saturday against the Commodores.
While he disagrees with Hamilton's decision to go in a new direction, Fulmer said he bears some responsibility.
"Would I like for it to have been different? Certainly," he said. "But I accept responsibility in this, too. We let it get to a point where somebody felt they had to make a decision. Whether it was the right decision or wrong one, we can agree to disagree."
As for his future beyond next week's season finale against Kentucky, Fulmer said he would take time and evaluate what the future holds.
"When one door closes, another opens. There's a lot of things out there to look at and consider," he said. "Just have some quality time with my family. They've paid a dear price for me to do this job for a long time.
"I may coach again," he said. "There are some opportunities to look at there. Everybody advises me to take my time and think about it and kind of get out of the stress. But I love the game. I love to win the games, I guess is the best way to say it."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.