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If there were an unlimited number of tickets available for his induction at the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer would invite thousands.
But the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Dec. 4 will accommodate only close friends and family, which is why Fulmer is getting a special recognition before Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama at Neyland Stadium.
Fulmer, who spent 16 years as the Vols' head coach before being let go in 2008, was selected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot this summer. He'll be honored along with the 1997 SEC championship team at Neyland Stadium. Quarterback Peyton Manning has an off-week and is flying here from Denver to help honor his old coach.
"I'd like to have everybody go to New York, but I'd have to have 10,000 tickets — there were that many players and coaches and fans and administrators that were so supportive," Fulmer said in an interview with the News Sentinel this week. "This is a way to say thank you to a lot of people this weekend. We'll have a good time and hopefully win a big football game."
Now four years removed from coaching, Fulmer, 62, remains active in private business and is in what he says is the best shape of his life. He doesn't like the idea of retirement, and indeed wishes he was still coaching the Vols right now. But he remains an avid follower of college football and a fan of the Vols.
"It was just a strange time (in 2008). Circumstances happened. The patience or loyalty or whatever, at that particular moment wasn't all it needed to be, in my opinion," he said. "But that's water over the dam. There's nobody (currently at UT) who had anything to do with that. And I'm a Vol. I have been my whole adult life."
Some excerpts from Fulmer's conversation with the News Sentinel:
Q: Can you enjoy football games as a civilian again after being so involved as a participant and coach for so many years of your life?
A: I enjoy football. I've got a lot of players out there playing and I've been to a lot of pro games since I've been out. I enjoy that.
I usually sit in a box or something. I don't think I could sit in the stands and listen to everything that goes on. I go to the UT games and follow college football. I spent too many years of my life invested in it, and I just enjoy athletics period. That hasn't changed. You coach that many years, you've got a lot of connections with a lot of people.
Q: Are you looking forward to Saturday?
A: I'm looking forward to getting to the plaque and seeing the 1997 team. It's going to be great. We have a function on Friday night that's going to be a lot of fun with the '97 team. I certainly encourage people to come early because the team is being honored in pregame. I hope people will come early to the game and see Peyton and all those guys.
Q: Of your 11 wins against Alabama, do any stand out?
A: I remember, probably all of them. It's a great rivalry and part of Tennessee's fantastic football history. Being where I'm from (Winchester), not far from Alabama, I grew up following Alabama as well as Tennessee. I have a deep-rooted appreciation for the rivalry and we did have some success against them that I'm very proud of.
I admired Coach (Gene) Stallings so much coming up as a young coach. Playing against him was a thrill and playing against Alabama was a thrill and winning the games was a thrill.
Q: Is this year's Alabama team beatable?
A: I don't think any team's invincible. They're certainly very good. That's why you have a 60-minute game. It never really matters what your records are. There's opportunities that you have and you do the very best you can to take advantage of it. You see every weekend where somebody turns the ball over a couple times and the other team makes a couple fourth downs and next thing you know, they win. There's always an opportunity in football.
Q: Do you think fans now have a great appreciation of how difficult and how special your run of sustained success was at Tennessee, given the records of the last four years?
A: Well, when you say that, it's like, 'OK, they didn't appreciate it before.' But I don't think that's the case. Everywhere I've gone since the day I left UT, there's been so many thousands of people — you can't go anywhere without meeting them — that have been supportive of me. I'm very, very grateful for that.
Q: Has Dave Hart reached out to you since the new administration came on board here?
A: I've talked to Dave a number of times. Dave and I go way back to his days at East Carolina and then Florida State when we played them for the national championship game. I think there's a very healthy respect there. Both ways. I help him any way I can, when he asks.
Q: Has the door closed on your opportunity to coach or would you still consider opportunities?
A: I don't think you can ever say never. I never thought I'd be out of coaching until I retired, and I'm much too young to be retired. I enjoy work and I'm as healthy as I've been in a long, long time as far as taking care of myself. My energy level hasn't changed. I'm enjoying life, enjoying children and grandchildren. But there's nothing like the smell of the grass of an SEC stadium in the fall.
Q: Has being away from the daily grind of coaching changed your perspective on coaching or life?
A: Our family never looked at it as a job. It was always a lifestyle. We made quality time with family. It might have been with the team somewhere or after practice. So the grind was I guess just part of the job. It's a different kind of profession. It's not unlike people that are dedicated to their job as a clergyman or a doctor. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle.
Q: What are you looking forward to about the ceremony in New York?
A: It's an absolutely great event. We're going to enjoy it as a family and with some good friends. (Fellow inductee and longtime Texas A&M coach) R.C. Slocum and I are great friends. Archie Manning is the head of the National Football Foundation, and we're obviously great friends. And I know most of the people up there, coaches and athletic directors and all the people that would be coming there. I've been doing it for 17 years. It will be really thrilling to be at the front of the Waldorf-Astoria in that setting and with that group of people.
Q: You occasionally post messages on your Twitter account (@phillipfulmer). Is that you or someone else?
A: You know, technology's changing and the world's changing and keeping up is important. My daughter is a communications major and actually does a lot of our communications, working at our office, at our company. I rarely do anything on Twitter, but when I do, she does it. She's not going to just put stuff out there. If it's something I said, or something I know about something that's going on, she'll do that.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.