Coach Fulmer's last game
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Next to a cold, steady rain - which helped the Tennessee-Kentucky game live up to its reputation as a foul-weather event - the most telling sign of the times Saturday was precisely that.
A shiny new metal sign.
Driven into the sidewalk just west of Neyland Stadium, it announced Phillip Fulmer Way would be closed, effective today.
The shutdown is necessary because of stadium renovations. It was planned months ago, long before Fulmer was forced to resign as head football coach for the Volunteers. But it's hard to ignore both the underlying message and the bizarre timing.
Effective at 9:34 p.m. Saturday, the conclusion of Tennessee's 28-10 win against the Wildcats, Fulmer's way became school history. On Monday, UT is expected to announce the hiring of former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin as his replacement.
The leaden skies that hung over Knoxville all day matched the mood of many fans.
"This rain is fitting," said Carolyn Lewis of Knoxville, clad head-to-toe in orange and white. "If it had been pretty, a lot of fair-weather fans would have turned out, but the coach knows people like us will always be there for him."
Carole Lamb, an architect from Murfreesboro, expressed the same sentiment as she sat on the sidewalk of Peyton Manning Pass, two hours prior to the celebrated "Vol Walk" by coaches and players.
"This is my spot," she said. "I always get here early and claim it. I've got my tissues prepared because I know I'll be crying. Phillip Fulmer is a good man, and I'm sorry they didn't let him go out on his own terms."
If you didn't know Fulmer was headed into his final game after 34 years as a Vol - four as a player and 30 as a coach, including 17 at the helm - you wouldn't have suspected anything was amiss at the Vol Walk.
Thousands of adoring fans mobbed the street as the team made its way to the stadium, high-fiving the coach and his family and shouting words of thanks, encouragement and goodwill. A smiling Fulmer worked the throng like a politician, hugging and handshaking with every step.
In this sea of orange stood Jerry Knoll of Jasper and his 10-year-old grandson, Blake Cooper.
"I brought Blake up here as a birthday present," said Knoll. "It's his first chance to see coach Fulmer. I wanted him to experience all of this."
In the partisan pre-game atmosphere, you would also have been hard-pressed to find anyone in orange shouting hosannas that Fulmer is leaving. Such would have been tantamount to speaking ill of the dead.
But even as his legacy was being praised, there was no doubt many were ready for a change. Perhaps it was phrased best by Linda Gropp, a nurse from Cookeville and season ticket-holder since 1975:
"I love Coach Fulmer. He's a class person. They'll never find another coach who loves UT the way he does. It was heartbreaking to watch that press conference (on Nov. 3, during which he announced his resignation). I wrote him a letter and told him thanks. He took us to the next level.
"But I'm also a fan who wants UT to beat Alabama and Florida. I want us to win another championship."
Sam Venable's column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He may be reached at 865-342-6272 or VenableS@knoxnews.com.