It’s like coming home for Christmas one year and realizing your parents have grown old, and realizing that means you are too. Or so my friends who are Tennessee fans tell me. The last few years of Phil Fulmer’s reign as coach of the Vols have been like that. He’s only been their coach since 1993, but he has spent most of his adult life in the Tennessee family. And, by and large, those years, especially since 1993, have been very successful.
People stopped taking Phil Fulmer seriously somewhere along the way, and that’s the point. The game has passed him by in one way or another. He’s a coach with a background in offense, yet Tennessee’s offense has been mediocre at best for a long while now. His Volunteers have made a name for themselves playing defense, yet they haven’t played it very well recently. By all accounts he’s a good guy in a game that’s losing them left and right. And even though Fulmer and his team made the SEC title game last season, no one believed they had a chance of beating LSU – then they almost did.
This season they really aren’t winning and coach Fulmer is on his way out. I may have been one of those people saying the game has passed him by and it’s time for him to go, but I meant it with the utmost respect. Well, I mean it that way now, anyway.
Some one said recently that he’s one of the last guys to have been around when the SEC was still just a Southern thing. Now it’s national and Fulmer is out of his element. Look at the new coaches having success in the SEC: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are younger, more expensively dressed, and not particularly interested in being seen as nice guys. The tone has changed in the SEC, but Phil Fulmer hasn’t, and maybe that’s why he’s leaving after this season.
Conspicuously, I haven’t mentioned Steve Spurrier yet. Back in his Florida days, Spurrier was the new ‘ball coach running circles around the old school Fulmer. Yeah, he was old school even then. Fulmer only beat Spurrier three times while he was at Florida, and it’s fitting that Fulmer’s second loss to the South Carolina version of Spurrier was the final straw. Spurrier couldn’t resist saying Fulmer had a “good run” at Tennessee. Basically he referred to him like he’s a race horse that’s about to be put out to stud. Some things never change.
I’m going to miss Phil Fulmer. His retirement means the sleeping dragon that is Tennessee might actually be awakened by yet another Armani-wearing coach with a tan. The SEC is bound to become even more corporate and each school’s fans are bound to become more militant and angry precisely because the stakes are so small. It’s still just a game played on Saturdays by college kids. But now the conference is making a ton of money and the coaches get paid even more.
We’re losing the soul of college football. Game by game, high-paying bowl bid after high-paying bowl bid, we are watching a game that is personal for each alumnus become nothing more than a minor-league for the NFL. Say what you want about this good old boy from Tennessee, but Fulmer was one more coach who kept it local and personal for people and for himself. Now he’s gone, and that’s the biggest shame of all.
It’s the end of an era for Tennessee, the SEC, and for college football. It sucks it’s ending quite like this, but it is what it is. But hey, maybe we can still save college football.