These days, we seem to disagree on many more things than we used to, or at least it appeared that way to us before we began making a list of what folks from this part of Tennessee do agree on: that Knoxville’s restaurants are better than ever; that the Sunsphere is iconic but underutilized; that it’s time for Lamar Alexander and Jimmy Duncan to retire; that though we have an abundance of greenways, our streets need work; that Sevier County has an indomitable spirit; that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is bursting at the seams with talent; that our dog parks suffer no comparison, and that, though he’s never been very far away…Phil Fulmer is back.
Cityview magazine first put Coach Philip Fulmer on our cover in September 2002. At the time, he was ten years into a Hall-of-Fame college football coaching career. I was delighted to get the chance to sit with him again—this time to discuss his new role at UT.
Nathan Sparks: I will never forget the first experience I had with you. I was a fledgling publisher and had been in business for just a few months, maybe a year.
Phillip Fulmer: I must’ve been a fledgling coach, too.
S: It was after 1998, so I don’t think you were a fledgling any more. When I came to interview you, I thought that I would be clever, and I said, “bring me up to speed, coach.” You looked at me and said, “you called this interview; if you’ve got questions, you’d better get to it.”
F: We must’ve had a bad practice or a bad game. I’m not typically like that, but let’s get to today’s questions, too.
S: So, welcome back! How does it feel to be a part of the UT family again?
F: I’m excited, and I’m appreciative of Dr. DiPetro. I’ve been involved with the university, just not officially. I’ve enjoyed being on the president’s council for a while before taking the new position, and I’ve enjoyed the big picture of the University. The chance to interact again with a lot of people I already know is a special thing. I’ve also been involved in projects and good things that are happening at the University of Tennessee, and sometimes the message has gotten lost. I’m happy to be able to help get that message out about all the good things that are happening at UT, not just at the Knoxville campus, but at Martin, Chattanooga, and Memphis as well. With the space institute, our hospitals, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, we’ve got so many good things going that I’m excited about being a part of telling the story.
S: So you don’t have a particular agenda in mind?
F: It is truly at Dr. DiPetro’s discretion, what he wants me to do. We’ve talked through a lot of this: legislative issues, development with key boosters, and campus issues have been part of the discussion. And if it’s with athletics, I’m glad to help, even though it’s not my central thing here. If Butch Jones wants to pick up the phone and give me a call, as he’s already doing, I’m glad to help his team or any of the other sports—same thing with Chattanooga and Martin. It’s amazing how many phone calls I’ve already gotten about tickets and parking and all those things. I don’t have anything to do with that. I just thank the caller and send them on to someone who can address their issue. To make it clear, I don’t have anything to do with tickets and parking.
S: You are clearly one of the best recruiters ever. Other than knowing what to say to grandma, what are your secrets for recruiting great talent?
F: I think everyone would agree that you’ve got to be passionate about what you do and believe in what you’re selling. I think we did so well at bringing young men to our campus because we believed it was a good thing for them, and in most cases it turned out to be. We have a great history here at Tennessee athletically and academically. We live in a beautiful part of the country. We brought recruits into a culture that was healthy for them and supported them academically, personally, emotionally, and spiritually—all of those things that develop young people into men ready to be husbands and fathers and successful people in the community. We were passionate about what we were selling at the university.
S: Do you think you will be able to bring that to the academic side?
F: I think it’s already there. The history is already there; the good things we’re doing on the academic side are already there. Sometimes we get in our own way, and things that are less important to the university end up getting talked about a lot more than the great things that are happening. I hope I can tell the message that “Yes, we’re not perfect all the time, but look at what we are doing really, really well.”
S: Do you have a specific job description or agenda as you begin your new role?
F: We have been working on a specific job description. Dr. DiPetro has asked me to outline several goals that I have, which I am in the process of finishing, and I’ve had lots of conversations about government relations and academic relationships at the different campuses. Coming this year, there will be five or six events with key boosters in Nashville, Memphis, upper East Tennessee, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and other places. If Dr. DiPetro wants my opinion on something, I’m glad to give him my honest opinion. Everybody needs that. I think he has good people around him, and hopefully I can be an addition to his team.
“It was an honor and privilege to play for Coach Fulmer. From the first time I met him in December of 1993 when he came to my home, I felt very comfortable talking to him. He was a straight shooter, and I knew I would enjoy playing for him when I signed with Tennessee in February 1994.
I had a great four years at Tennessee, and a significant part of my decision to stay my fourth year was because I wanted to play for Coach Fulmer another year. He was an extremely loyal coach, he always had his players’ backs, and you knew he would always fight for you. As a result, all of his players fought for him as well.
I knew he was a special coach at the time, and Coach Fulmer being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot is a testament to that.
I learned a lot about football from Coach Fulmer; he had great insight to all phases of the game. He was an offensive coordinator before he became a head coach, and he was extremely knowledgeable about defenses and other positions on both offense and defense.
I’ve been so grateful for his support of me since I’ve left University of Tennessee and throughout my NFL career. He always came to games when he could, and kept in contact whether it be a call, email, or text after a game. I always appreciated his support.
Most importantly, though, I am thankful for his friendship. The times that we are together on trips—having dinner, playing golf, or hunting—are times I truly cherish and value his friendship, and it means a great deal to me. I don’t play football anymore, but friendships don’t go away, and I’m honored and privileged to have played college football for Coach Fulmer, but even more honored and grateful to call Coach Fulmer my friend.”
—Peyton Manning, August 2017
S: In the ten years since you’ve left coaching, what’s been your most rewarding pursuit outside of the university?
F: I made the decision not to chase a job somewhere else because I didn’t think that I would be as passionate about the next job as I had been about my job at Tennessee. I made a conscious decision to enjoy my children and grandchildren rather than somebody else’s. I have done that. I have scheduled just like I scheduled something in athletics. I’m the assistant to the assistant that is the assistant pee-wee baseball coach over at Knox Youth Sports, and I love it. My grandson and granddaughter are there. I also have grandchildren in Nashville and Chattanooga, so I’ve made the rounds and enjoyed the fruits of not having to go to work every day. We do have a little business that we started, and we are working with that every day. Some of the charitable things that I’m very passionate about are Alzheimer’s and the Boys and Girls Club. Everybody is touched by Alzheimer’s, whether it’s in your family or elsewhere; it’s a terrible disease. I love seeing the Boys and Girls Club do well. The singer Charlie Daniels and I have a tournament every year in Nashville—it’s the biggest fundraiser for the Jason Foundation, which is a non-profit that works for the prevention of teenage suicide. It also strives to educate teachers and counselors to recognize signs of depression.
S: One of the things we saw throughout your coaching career was the emotional stabilizer that you were to young men. You seemed to keep them on track. How do you bring the same kind of emotional stability to a diverse student body?
F: I think just being a part of the conversation and having everybody listen. Most of the time, addressing things that we disagree on or are not quite where we want them to be is usually about compromise and conversation. You’ve got to have the conversation. I’m willing to be a facilitator in any way I’m asked to.
S: Do you have one particular thing that you want to accomplish?
F: Yes, to be a unifier. We have so many great things that are happening at our university that nobody is necessarily hearing about because they’re not happy about something else. Look at all the great things that we are doing, and let’s talk about them and find some common ground. That’s what I’m looking forward to. You make a choice: you can stay uninvolved and let things go on, or you can get involved and have some say. I represent not just myself and my family and my legacy, but I represent a whole bunch of young men that came through here and did well. I want my children and grandchildren to love the University of Tennessee and feel good about what we did here because there were so many good things that happened.
A university is bricks and mortar, and it has its own life, but it’s the people who make decisions along the way that can be productive or disruptive. We went through a period of time with four presidents in six years and a mess in athletics. We weren’t on a good page. I think we’re on a good page now with Dr. DiPetro as leader. And Butch has done a good job. Athletics goes as football goes, just to be blunt. He’s got a good foundation now: nine games, two years in a row. Think back to four years ago where we were. We’re in a different place now, and to get that message out is part of my job.
S: Do you stay in touch with some of the players that you have had?
F: One of my daughters and I were talking about it a couple days ago. I’ll get 150 texts on Father’s Day from just players. I want to make this really clear: that goes as a credit to my staff at the time and all of the support we had. We operated that way; these were our children. We were responsible for them for a period of time, and you don’t lose that automatically. Not everything turned out perfectly; you see some kids didn’t make it. Some made it but didn’t get as much playing time. It wasn’t always perfect. But for the most part, those kids knew that we cared, and they knew that we did our very best to help them get where they wanted to be. You don’t just leave that relationship lying there; that’s a lifetime relationship. When I go to different parts of the state and the country, we’ll have get-togethers and see guys and stay in touch. I hear from them if they get married, or have a child, or get a new job, or need a new job. I think that’s great, and that’s why I chose to stay at Tennessee for so long. I had chances to leave, but we had a lot of good things going on, plus my own children were healthy and happy and growing. I didn’t want to change the environment at the time. We’re a big family.
S: What’s the one thing people will see that they don’t expect in the coming years? Are we going to see you cruising the campus on your motorcycle?
F: Probably not. I keep that motorcycle kind of under wraps a little bit, but you might see me in the foothills occasionally when there’s not much traffic. I don’t know what the future holds. It’s not like I’ve been away: I go to games, I go to practice, that kind of thing. I’ve pursued my interest to get on the road with Dr. DiPetro and see how people respond. So far, it’s been positive, and I’m glad it has, though I’m sure there’s somebody out there who wrinkled their suits along the way.
S: I guess we can’t keep everybody happy all the time, but I think everybody agrees your involvement with the university is an awesome thing.
F: Thank you. I hope it turns out to be just that.
S: Howard Baker was known as the great conciliator; maybe you’ll be the great unifier.
F: I hope so. It’s not like we’re just way off page; we’ve made a lot of progress.
S: We seem like we’re in a better place than we’ve been in a long time.
F: Getting that message out there is important.
S: What’s the one thing you’d like to add?
F: Just the fact that I’m grateful, I’m grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m grateful for Dr. DiPetro’s foresight in allowing it to happen. Now is the right time, and I’m glad we’re a part of it.