Tuesday, November 04, 2008
For as long as I can remember, Phil Fulmer has been at the University of Tennessee.
He was an offensive lineman when I went to my first football game at Neyland stadium at the age of five.
He was a graduate assistant when I went to a competition at UT when I was in elementary school.
When I was in high school, he was an assistant coach for the Vols.
When I was in college, he was the offensive coordinator.
The first time I used my alumni tickets, he was the newly crowned head coach of the mighty Volunteers and we loved him for it.
College football has been one of my greatest loves since I was a child. Nothing was a bigger treat than driving to Neyland Stadium on Saturday morning, one of thousands of orange-painted cars on their way to eat, drink and be merry before the game. Nothing was more fun than sitting on the deck of one of the boats in the Volunteer Navy as you rounded the bend and saw Neyland sitting like a jewel against the backdrop of Knoxville and the Smoky mountains. Nothing was more exciting than sitting in that stadium while 110,000 people screamed out Rocky Top at the top of their lungs in support of their team.
And for every game I've ever attended at the University of Tennessee, Phil Fulmer has been on the sidelines. He was there for four hundred plus games--can you imagine that? He's been involved with the university for FORTY years--the Joe Pa of the Southeastern Conference with a .752 all time winning percentage, five SEC title game appearances, two SEC titles and one BCS national title in a year that the Vols were supposed to be rebuilding in. It was just thirteen months ago that he led his team into the SEC title game, losing to eventual national champion LSU.
But now, the greed of the UT athletic department, its AD and the President of the university has driven out the icon that gave his life to the Tennessee Volunteers. After forty years, he's been run out of town on a rail.
I watched his press conference yesterday and wept for the pain of a good man, a man who lives and breathes and sleeps for the young men he guides. I felt a moment of fierce joy because of the team's support of their coach, and I cheered when, as one, they rose to their feet, turned their back on the AD and marched out of the room. One young man shouted, "He ain't got nothing to say to us!" as they left.
And you know what? He doesn't. How do you explain to an athlete that you got rid of an iconic coach because greed is more important than integrity, that victory will sacrifice loyalty and titles are more important than philosophy. Athletic director Mike Hamilton has sorely miscalculated during this fiasco, sacrificing the pride of one of the winningest coaches in college football history on the altar of competition. There is nothing he can say to those young men, for whom loyalty is a virtue preached every day at practice.
For that matter, there is very little he can say to me.
Coach Fulmer, you were kind to me when I was young. You remembered my face and name when you saw me by the side of the road for the Vols Walk three years ago. You've given me the greatest football memories in my life.
Godspeed to you, Coach. I just wanted you to know that at least in this subsection of the Volunteer Nation, there's a bright spot of Tennessee Orange in Ohio that will never forgive the university for what they've done to you.
And as for you, Tennessee football players, it's time for you to suck it up and win out for the Coach. Here's your chance to say something to Mike Hamilton about what loyalty can bring to the University of Tennessee.