KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — College Football Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer didn’t receive a manual when he took over as Tennessee’s athletic director, and anywhere else that might have been a problem.
“It really might be different if it were somewhere else,” Fulmer told SEC Country, asked about sliding into the broad-based role of athletic director. “But I know the people here, and I know this university. I’m still learning some things, but I’m fortunate to have good people around that can pick up where I have questions.”
Fulmer eased into the Tennessee administration last summer when he was hired as a special adviser for school president Joe DiPietro.
The move benefited everyone. Tennessee athletics struggled under the previous leadership appointed and managed by DiPietro. Fulmer, meanwhile, was ready to contribute to any cause that would help his alma mater.
No one could have known at the time how well Fulmer’s time around the school president and chancellor Beverly Davenport ultimately would help the Vols’ administrative leadership strike a healthy — and necessary — balance.
Fulmer’s school administrative experience is indeed relatively limited compared to the 37 years he spent in the collegiate coaching industry, 17 as head coach and essentially CEO of Tennessee football.
But as Fulmer and most any other athletic director would point out, football is what it all boils down to when it comes to generating revenue and pleasing an SEC fan base.
“Coach [Bill] Battle told me I would enjoy the spring sports,” Fulmer said, “and I have, being around all of the coaches and teams has been fun.
“But the truth is the engine that drives the train is football, and we have to get that right.”
Fulmer, who replaced John Currie on Dec. 1, said he spent his first six weeks working exclusively with football, helping first-time head coach Jeremy Pruitt recruit and hire a coaching staff.
“It’s my job to make sure Jeremy has everything he needs to be successful,” Fulmer said in an SEC Country interview earlier this year.
Indeed, Fulmer granted generous three-year guaranteed contracts to Pruitt assistants who are more promising than proven, enabling Tennessee to have an elite staff out of the gate.
Former coach Butch Jones wasn’t as fortunate when he was hired under a different athletic administration in 2012. The Vols were on probation back then and operating under a tighter football budget, and so Jones’ original staff paled considerably to the star power Pruitt has brought in with Fulmer’s approval.
That led to a lack of continuity on Jones’ coaching staff, which in turn triggered attrition while also limiting player development.
Pruitt takes over Tennessee in a much better position than any Vols football coach since Fulmer, as former SEC championship coach Tommy Tuberville explained last week.
“The main thing is to have somebody in the athletic director position that really understands football and what coaches go through, what they need, what they don’t need,” Tuberville said on the 3-Man Front radio show on WJOX in Birmingham, Ala. “And Phillip is perfect for that.
“Manage your coaches, everything else will take care of itself,” Tuberville said. “This stuff about we need to hire an AD to raise money, or do this or that, that doesn’t solve problems. What solves problems is keeping your coaches there, helping them and understanding what helps them, and that’s why Phillip Fulmer was a perfect choice.”
Fulmer has, however, helped raise money, going back to his time as head coach. Fulmer aided in the fundraising that got the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center built in 2001 along with the Allan Jones Jones Aquatic Center in 2008.
The family man in Fulmer presents another value to Vols athletes, as he has a deeper and more valuable perspective than many other athletic directors whose children might not have played sports at the Division I level.
Fulmer’s two youngest daughters, Brittany and Allison, were Lady Vols. Brittany was a diver at Tennessee (2003-06), and Allison played softball for Tennessee (2006-08).
Despite his commitments to the Vols, Fulmer often attended his daughters’ events throughout their careers in high school and into college, giving him valuable perspective into the lives of student-athletes and their parents.
“I’ve been to swimming and diving meets and softball games more than anyone can imagine,” Fulmer said with a laugh. “I’ve watched them get in the pool at 5:30 a.m. and then have to be back at 4:30 that day after classes. Football players think they have it hard, they ought to give that a try.”
Tennessee athletics have improved in the short time Fulmer has taken over.
Fulmer explained it’s his job is to make sure they have the facilities to be competitive in recruiting, and the coach’s job is to compete for championships.
But there’s also a role Fulmer must feel as school ambassador, and years of handling the fanfare that comes with being the Tennessee football coach has prepared him for that.
Fulmer was at ease at Tom Black Track last Saturday, greeting fans while attending the 51st annual Tennessee relays that featured global track icons Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman.
“It was great to have Justin back here, he’s always been a Vol and always will be,” Fulmer said. “It’s interesting how classy he has been to mentor Christian [Coleman] even though Christian was the one who broke his records here at Tennessee. Justin didn’t have to come back here and run Saturday, and I’m sure he brought those other track stars with him.”
But with Fulmer running the show, athletes like Gatlin feel more comfortable being back around the program, and donors and fans also have responded.
“Since those first six weeks I’ve been focused on the bigger picture here at Tennessee,” Fulmer said. “At one point nine of our 13 [winter and spring] sports were in the Top 25. The problem with that is you can be in the Top 25 and still be sixth in the SEC.
“We all still have some work to do, but I’d say it’s going well.”
Tennessee is currently 34th in the Learfield Director’s Cup Standings but expects to get a boost from spring sports, particularly if the Lady Vols softball program returns to the Women’s College World Series.
Here’s a year-by-year look at how Tennessee has fared in the all-sports trophy standings since the Learfield Director Cup inception in 1993-94:
Tennessee sports finishes
- 1993-94: No. 13
- 1994-95: No. 11
- 1995-96: No. 13
- 1996-97: No. 17
- 1997-98: No. 19
- 1998-99: No. 17
- 1999-2000: No. 20
- 2000-01: No. 21
- 2001-02: No. 12
- 2002-03: No. 27
- 2003-04: No. 14
- 2004-05: No. 8
- 2005-06: No. 14
- 2006-07: No. 7
- 2007-08: No. 16
- 2008-09: No. 23
- 2009-10: No. 16
- 2010-11: No. 22
- 2011-12: No. 33
- 2012-13: No. 37
- 2013-14: No. 40
- 2014-15: No. 38
- 2015-16: No. 34
- 2016-17: No. 46
- 2017-18: Currently No 34