It's official - Phil Fulmer is leaving Tennessee at the end of the season.
I knew this news was coming, yet I didn't fully believe it would happen until the word came down today. He was by far the dean of SEC coaches and he's been a Tennessee Man all his life. He brought the Big Orange a national title and two conference titles along with 150 wins. Only General Neyland himself has more in UT history.
Fulmer, along with Bobby Bowden, is one of the two great villains of my youth. He is one of just two rival coaches to bring home a national title in my lifetime, and he gave Florida an absolutely crushing defeat in 2001. Georgia and Auburn coaches came and went and LSU was no threat, but Fulmer was there and he was a winner.
Here's the thing though: I don't think I ever truly hated Phillip Fulmer. He was an easy target for mockery, from the "Can't spell Citrus without UT" line to the Krispy Kreme jokes to his players' frequent off-the-field issues. I can't ever remember him condoning the injuring of other players like Bowden tacitly did, and he often took the high road in public disputes.
Loyalty doesn't begin to describe the guy. I can never remember hearing Fulmer's name attached to any other coaching job, college or pro. He played, was an assistant coach at, and and was head coach at UT. His assistants have almost never had to worry about losing their jobs. I'd even be willing to bet that David Cutcliffe, a guy who probably knows Fulmer better than any coach other than John Chavis, would tell you in private he wouldn't have taken the Duke job had he known the new offense this year would lead to Fulmer's departure.
Fulmer was a pivotal character in the growth of the SEC into the premier conference as college football has really hit the big time over the past couple of decades. He and Steve Spurrier kept the conference afloat in the national power rankings during an era when Georgia, Auburn, and LSU were going through troubles and Alabama was only periodically good. His Vols continued to be competitive and relevant for much of this decade too, winning the SEC East three times. He was even better about playing outside the region than just about anyone else in the conference, frequently scheduling road games at places like Notre Dame and Pac-10 schools.
Ultimately, he has not been living up to the standard he created for the program lately. The level that Tennessee attained means that two non-winning seasons in four years will get any coach shown the door. It is usually the guy who follows the legend who gets caught by high expectations, the Ron Zook and (soon to be) Ron Prince types, but Fulmer stayed around long enough to be that guy himself.
It is a shame that someone who won 150 games at one school cannot leave it on his own terms. Tennessee football is a bigger part of his life than any school is to any other active coach not named Paterno. Watching the press conference even made me feel a little emotional, because I could tell he was hurting so badly. There are no winners in cases like these.
So long, Phil. You were a credit to your university and one of the guys who enabled the conference to reach its lofty status. This Gator wishes you well in your life after coaching, and may the fish in the Tennessee River quake at the sound of your voice.