January 1, 1999
By TOM SHARP
AP Sports Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is often defined by
he is not.
He’s not flashy. He’s not svelte. He’s not arrogant.
OK, so some of the more famous coaches have some of those traits.
But he has a better winning percentage than Steve Spurrier or anybody
currently coaching in Division I-A (66-11, .857), and his undefeated,
top-ranked team is playing for the national championship Monday against Bobby
Bowden and Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I’m not the flashiest guy around,” Fulmer admits. “But I’m also not
nearly as dull as these guys want to make me seem sometimes.”
Right, agreed linebacker Al Wilson, rolling his eyes. “Sometimes he can
crack a couple of stale jokes,” he said.
Fulmer isn’t paid to do a standup routine and doesn’t bother to try.
Asked to compare himself to the talkative, folksy Bowden, Fulmer said:
not going to get into a storytelling contest with him, I can tell you that.”
In a characteristic touch, he added: “But I don’t think that has anything
to do with the game.”
Right, the game. If Fulmer’s personality is easy to overlook, his
“Phil Fulmer is just getting noticed,” Bowden said. “If the world stopped
right now he’d go down as the winningest coach ever. He can’t hide much
Everybody knows he’s out there.”
On Thursday, he signed a new, six-year contract for $950,000 a year and
unspecified other benefits.
Fulmer is the consummate plodder, a tortoise in a field of hares. He’s
smart, well-organized, a stickler for detail and a hard worker.
He promised to take the Tennessee program to a higher level when he took
over in 1993, and he’s done it by shoring up the behind-the-scenes stuff that
isn’t on TV every Saturday but can ensure that a team is: recruiting, academic
tutoring, the weight program.
Fulmer is a small-town guy from Winchester in southern middle
lot closer to the Alabama line than to Knoxville. As a player out of high
school, he chose Tennessee over Alabama and Bear Bryant, and lettered as an
offensive lineman for three years in a relatively undistinguished college
He was an assistant coach at Tennessee immediately after his playing
then for five years at Wichita State and one year at Vanderbilt before
returning to Knoxville in 1980. He was the offensive coordinator before taking
over from Johnny Majors at the end of the 1992 season.
In Fulmer’s six full seasons, the Vols have won 10 games twice, 11 games
twice and 12 games this season – the first undefeated regular season for
Tennessee since 1956 and the most victories for the Vols in one season.
If Tennessee can handle Florida State, he’ll have the school’s first
national title since 1951 and become just the second Tennessee coach to win
one. The stadium is named after the other, Gen. Robert R. Neyland.
Fulmer is easy to underestimate, and he likes it that way. He is
his public statements; he’d rather stick a hot poker in his ear than give an
opponent bulletin-board fodder.
But he didn’t get to be successful just by not being various things.
He can spot and recruit talent, the life’s blood for a college coach.
the Vols lost Peyton Manning, two other first-round draft picks and a slew of
other players to the NFL after last year’s 11-2 season, they were expected to
fall off. When they lost Jamal Lewis in the fourth game this season, they were
again expected to suffer.
And yet here they are.
“We’ve got great players behind great players,” Wilson said.
Fulmer is loyal to his staff. He has appointed three offensive or
coordinators in his tenure, and all three were promotions from within.
He has a reputation as a “player’s coach,” and the players say he’s
even better the last couple of years.
“He’s letting us make a lot of the decisions in how this team is going to
be run,” said cornerback Steve Johnson, a fifth-year senior. “He has the
final say-so, of course, but he’s letting us have a lot of say-so and I think
it’s been good for the team.”
Fulmer says he has been more relaxed this year, a function of
of liking the chemistry on this team.
“Let’s all enjoy what we’re doing, but let’s don’t cross the line,” he
says of his philosophy. “You respect me and what I’m doing, and I’ll certainly
respect you and what you’re doing, but don’t cross the line.”