So long to a coach who gave his all for Tennessee

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

This is the last time I'll write about Phillip Fulmer as the head football coach at Tennessee.

It seems like it was just yesterday that he peered across his desk at me, wrote his cell phone number down on his card, and before he handed it to me, said, "I don't want to become phone pals, so only use this when it's really important."

That was the summer of 1997, and I was a fledgling (and somewhat clueless) beat writer with The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. I'd just been hired to cover the Vols, didn't know Fulmer at all, and he sure didn't know me. Yet, there I was asking for his cell phone number.

So as I spent some time with him earlier this week in his office, boxes of his belongings already packed up, I couldn't help but think back to my first meeting with a coach I thought would occupy that office for as long as he wanted.

But as Fulmer himself says, "Nothing is forever."

After 35 years at his alma mater as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Fulmer was fired by Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton on Nov. 2, the day after a 27-6 loss to South Carolina, and allowed to finish out what will be the Vols' second losing season in the last four years.

He coaches his final game Saturday against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium.

As his finale has neared, Fulmer has been inundated with calls, letters and text messages from former players, coaching colleagues and friends.

"I've sent a bunch of kids through that 'T' for the last time," Fulmer said. "You think about it, and I've been running through that 'T' since I was 19 with a little bit of a hiatus where I was away for six years. Not many people had a chance to do that, and not many people have had the chance to live the passion like I've been able to live it ... and that's the truth."

Fulmer hasn't kept up with the search for his replacement. He's spent his time concentrating on this last game.

But Fulmer knows as well as anybody what kind of leash will be on the next guy, likely former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.

The adjoining room to Fulmer's office is full of trophies, everything from a national championship trophy, SEC championship trophies, bowl trophies and coach of the year trophies.

"I wonder what he'll think when he walks in here," Fulmer asks.

It's a fair question.

Fulmer was 151-52 in 17 seasons. He won a national title, two SEC titles and has been to the SEC Championship Game five of the last 11 years. But what got him was 10 years without an SEC title and too many losses this decade to Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

"I'm not trying to sound noble, but it's a business," said Fulmer, who had several NFL teams gauge his interest earlier in his career, but never let it get anywhere because he had no desire to coach anywhere else but Tennessee. "Mike made a business decision. It wasn't my decision to make. I have a responsibility for letting it get to a point where he felt like he had to make a decision. There are a couple of decisions I'd love to have back, some things I would have done differently. But it wasn't my call.

"Now, do I think I would have gotten things straightened out? I know I would have. Did I deserve that chance after all my time here and what all we'd accomplished? That was somebody else's decision to make, not mine.

"But I didn't quit. I was fired. There was no way I was going to walk out there on that field and tell those players that I quit."

Fulmer, who became a grandfather earlier this year, has never been one to seek the spotlight. He's anything but a quote machine, almost boring at times and purposely evasive with the media. He doesn't let too many people into his world outside of football.

And even in the realm of football, he usually needs to "see the tape" before expounding -- his way of dodging the question.

He's quick, though, to point out that some of his proudest moments at Tennessee have come off the field when he's been able to "save a kid" or help straighten out a player's life or reach a player that nobody else had been able to reach.

The irony here is that one of the biggest criticisms of Fulmer throughout his career was that he was too soft on player discipline and gave too many players too many chances.

"We've made a lot of tough decisions and felt like that was the right thing to do, whether they were good players or bad players," Fulmer said. "But when you know young people and know them personally and think there's a good side in there somewhere ... I'm proud of the fact that we took on those challenges and gave kids chances."

Xavier Mitchell, a defensive end who was a senior on the 2007 team, was one of those players Fulmer stuck by after he had some issues off the field.

When Mitchell heard that Fulmer had been fired, he sat down and penned a touching letter to his coach.

Mitchell wrote: "Your passion for your players and the game was great while still showing that same passion for your family. Not many people can do that. I recognize your hard work and the integrity you came to work with every day. You taught me to be responsible, then trusted me with responsibility. You gave me a second chance and trusted that I didn't need a third. You taught me that toughness truly means to walk away no matter what the circumstances. You calmed me down, yet set me free. You modestly fathered a fatherless child for four years."

Having grown up in Winchester, Tenn., and seeing first-hand what Tennessee football meant to the people in this state, Fulmer never lost sight of that fact.

It's how he met the likes of Eric Haag and Nick Trail.

Haag, who's from Hendersonville, Tenn., was on his way to church with his father and two brothers Christmas Eve morning in 1995 when they were involved in a tragic car accident. Haag's father and his 11-year-old brother were killed. His youngest brother, Andrew, suffered serious spinal cord injuries. Eric and his brothers had grown up going to Tennessee football games with their father.

The Vols were in Orlando, Fla., preparing for the Citrus Bowl when somebody relayed to Fulmer what had happened. He didn't know the Haag family, but quickly reached out. So did Peyton Manning.

Haag wound up attending Tennessee, was a manager on the football team and later worked under Fulmer in the football office. They developed a special relationship. Haag, who now works in the development office at the university, said Fulmer remains a surrogate father to him.

Fulmer has also been a big part of Andrew's life. Andrew, who walks with the aid of arm crutches, is now at Tennessee and involved with the football team as a manager.

Trail's story is a similar one.

He grew up in Manchester, Tenn., in a family that bled orange. When he was 3-years-old, he was diagnosed with spastic dysplasia, a debilitating form of cerebral palsy. Doctors told Trail's parents he might never walk.

For most of Trail's first 13 years of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair or walker and underwent six major surgeries. But he persevered and made it to Tennessee, soon joining the football program as a manager.

In 2003, he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he ran through the 'T' for the first time. His father, Bobby, wrote a poem about it, which eventually made its way to Fulmer.

So touched was Fulmer that he read the poem to the entire team. After the opener that season against Fresno State, Fulmer called Trail to the front of the locker room and awarded him a game ball. The team gave him a standing ovation.

Trail is now in graduate school at Tennessee, but still there every day for practice.

"We won a lot of games here and experienced a lot of highs, but the relationships and all the people you touched and all the people that touched you ... that's what it was all a
bout," Fulmer said. "I didn't come in here and scorch the earth, cheat, get in trouble, win a lot of games and leave.

"This was home. This was my family and always will be."

So as I write my final words about Phillip Fulmer the head football coach at Tennessee, I'll make a prediction.

The Vols might get a better coach than Fulmer, a flashier coach, maybe even a coach who wins more SEC titles.

What they won't get is somebody that it means more to coach football at the University of Tennessee than it did to the guy they just fired.