Fulmer agrees to step aside as Vols coach at end of season

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Saying he would accept the university's decision, an emotional Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer confirmed Monday at a tension-filled news conference at Neyland Stadium that he would not return next season.

Fulmer, tearing up several different times and with many of his players openly glaring at Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, made it clear that it wasn't his decision to step aside after 17 seasons at his alma mater.

"Many fans have been supportive. Some have been angry. All of us are disappointed," said Fulmer, who brought Tennessee its first national championship in 47 years in 1998. "I'm proud that the accomplishments over the last 17 years have been part of such high expectations.

"Our Tennessee family is united in its goals, but divided in the right path to get there. I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided."

Fulmer will coach the Vols (3-6, 1-5 SEC) throughout the remainder of this season. They've lost three of their last four games and are in danger of losing seven games in a season for only the second time in school history. If so, it would also be their second losing season in the past four years. Tennessee finished 5-6 in 2005.

Hamilton and Fulmer met on Sunday, and Fulmer was told then that he wouldn't be back for his 18th season. There was tenuous discussion between the two about how Fulmer's exit would be couched. Fulmer told his family Sunday night and began telling staff members on Monday.

During his comments at the news conference, Fulmer went through a long list of people he wanted to thank, including former athletic director Doug Dickey and former president Joe Johnson. But he never mentioned Hamilton or current president John Petersen.

Hamilton said he's asked Fulmer to stay on in the athletic department in some capacity.

"I'm more than confident that our staff and players can turn this trend around. Our history proves it," said Fulmer, who paused a couple of different times to gather himself. "Our recruiting for this year proves it. I've invested a lot of my life into this university and wish nothing but the best for its continued success. I will help my successor if needed or if asked for in any way possible if he chooses.

"I love this university and hope everyone knows that beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Fulmer signed a new seven-year contract worth $2.4 million last year, and he's owed a $6 million buyout payable over 48 months as part of that contract. His staff is owed an additional $3.55 million, although that figure could go down depending on how many of them get jobs next year.

After Fulmer finished his part of the news conference, Hamilton took the microphone at the podium, and the majority of players who were there stood up and walked out of the room. Someone yelled, "He ain't got nothing to say to us" as the players filed out.

"Tennessee is a family, one, and we take care of each other," senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster said. "That right there [Fulmer being forced out] wasn't a very stand-up thing to do. I mean, you're talking about a guy who's worked his butt off from a student, to a GA, to an assistant coach, to a coordinator, to a head coach.

"This was not the way for him to go out. He should have been able to go out on his own terms, and that's how the rest of my teammates feel about it."

The majority of the Vols' current players packed the room for the news conference. Several former players were also there, including members of the 1998 national championship team.

Will Overstreet, a defensive end on that team, said the decision by Hamilton to push Fulmer out during the season was shameful.

"They lost a lot of ex-players today, a lot of players who played on that national championship team," Overstreet said. "A lot of the former players I talked to thought maybe this was his decision to step down now, but he was fired. He deserved a lot better than this. They did him wrong."

Not all former players were as upset to see Fulmer on his way out.

"You never want to see anyone lose their job. He's been there a long time and has done a lot of great things," former running back Gerald Riggs Jr. told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But lately you could see they weren't getting any better. You can't put your finger on it. But with the amount of talent they supposedly have, they have to be better.

"Last year, the right teams lost and we got a lot of help to get to the SEC championship. This year, we were behind from day one and there were no signs it was getting better. You don't want to sit around and watch the ship continue to go down. You have to save it before it's unsalvageable."

Some of the players were sobbing as they left the news conference. Many of them hugged Fulmer's wife, Vicky, and his middle daughter, Brittany.

"I feel like I just lost one of my ribs, my kidney or something," star safety Eric Berry said. "I feel like I lost a family member. I mean, nobody has died, but that's what it feels like right now."

There had been increasing scrutiny on Fulmer as the losses mounted this season. He's been at Tennessee for more than 30 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

He guided Tennessee to a 45-5 record from 1995 to '98. The Vols remain the last team to have won back-to-back SEC championships when they did so in 1997 and 1998 and also won the national title in 1998 with an unbeaten 13-0 record.

But the program hasn't been the same this decade. The Vols have lost 31 games since the end of the 2001 season, and 19 of those have been by double digits.

"It's very difficult for me to call this the end of my coaching career," Fulmer said. "Right now, I'm focused on these young men I recruited to be here for this football team. They have three games left, and I will give them my full devotion to make sure we finish in a positive way.

"When the games are over, I will step back and reflect. With this decision behind us, I am very hopeful and very confident the Tennessee people will rally around our young men and start the new road right now."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covered Tennessee from 1997 to 2006. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.