It's almost fall and for the first time since he was in the sixth grade Phillip Fulmer has time on his hands.
He's decided that he's going to fill it the way a lot of people in East Tennessee do: Some days he will pick up shotgun, some days a rifle and some days a fishing rod. This year he will see the leaves change up close and personal, not just driving down the interstate or from 30,000 feet in an airplane.
Tennessee hunters can expect to be seeing a lot of the former Tennessee football coach in the weeks and months ahead as he takes on the role of sportsman and spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and the Hunters For the Hungry Program.
"When I was growing up in Winchester we had some land on the edge of town and I would love to find some time to get out just by myself with my .410," Fulmer said before taping some TV spots for the TWF. "I didn't have a lot of time because I was always so busy with athletics, I just loved getting away and being outside."
Fulmer admits he didn't often come home with an overflowing game bag. A three-sport athlete in high school, any chance to learn the finer points of hunting quail - which were once plentiful around Winchester - or rabbits or squirrels was by-passed to learn the finer points of blocking and tackling.
It wasn't until he got to Wichita State as a 22-year-old assistant football coach that hunting became something more than a way to kill a few hours in the fall.
"That's where I developed a passion for bird hunting," he said. "There's a lot of quail in the southeastern part of Kansas and if you go southwest you get into pheasant.
"Ever since then I've found time to bird hunt."
Fulmer ended up working with TWF after a conversation the organization's Chad Whittenburg had with him and broadcaster Doug Mathews. Whittenburg told Mathews he was looking for a spokesman, one coach recommended the other and Fulmer didn't hesitate to lend his name to not only the Hunter's For the Hungry Program but one of the state's oldest conservation organizations.
Hunter's For the Hungry takes venison donated by hunters and distributes it to families in need across the state. Since 1998 more than 360,000 pounds of meat have been donated, enough for 1.5 million meals.
"I called him and he said he would be glad to do it," Whittenburg said. "He said he wanted to give something back to the state of Tennessee."
Fulmer knows what he likes in the outdoors and what he doesn't like.
As a hunter he got a taste of turkey hunting this past spring with another former Vol head coach, Bill Battle, and shot two on a hunt near Demopolis, Ala. He had an invitation to go on an elk hunt out West where a big bull was all but guaranteed, but he's looking for something more challenging.
A trout fisherman, he'll take the tailwaters around East Tennessee over the out-of-the-way streams and creeks of the Smokies. As a hunter he got a taste of turkey hunting this past spring with another former Vol head coach, Bill Battle, and shot two on a hunt near Demopolis, Ala. He had an invitation to go on an elk hunt out West where a big bull was all but guaranteed, but he's looking for something more challenging.
"I was told you could shoot one off the front porch," Fulmer said. "I thought, where's the fun in that."
Raccoon hunting? He would rather not.
"My brother, Glenn, used to be considered one of the best coon hunters in our part of the state," Fulmer said. "I went four or five times, but that didn't do it for me."
What is likely to do it for him is a bird hunting/duck hunting/fishing trip to Argentina. He leaves Tuesday on a nine-day trip that would have been impossible for him to take since sometime in the early 1960s.
"I know a lot of people who have gone and I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "Because of football I've really never had a chance to hunt ducks before."
So Fulmer likes to hunt, his fall is free and some investment work and television commentary have replaced trips to Gainesville and Tuscaloosa on his calendar. With the only pressure most hunters face being whether or not they make the next shot, will Fulmer realize there's more to fall than just football?
"The closer it gets to fall the more excited about coaching I am," he said. "If you have a passion for coaching and the opportunity presents itself at the right school with a good tradition. . . it will be a big decision to make. But I've talked it over with Vicky and my family and I think I will coach again."
Bob Hodge is a freelance contributor.