KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- An emotional Phillip Fulmer, with his wife at his side and tearful, angry players surrounding him, announced Monday that he had accepted Tennessee's decision that this will be his last season as the Volunteers coach.
Fulmer, 58, is being forced out after 17 years as Tennessee's coach, a run that included a national championship. He has a 150-51 record with the Vols, including the 1998 NCAA title -- the school's first since 1951.
"This is not an easy day for me or my family. It is not a day that I sought or accepted easily," said Fulmer, his voice cracking as he fought back tears standing next to wife, Vicky.
"Our Tennessee family is united in its goals, but divided in the right path to get there. I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided. That is why I accept the university's decision that this will be my last season as Tennessee's football coach."
The Vols fell on hard times this season and were just 3-6, including 1-5 in the SEC after a 27-6 loss at South Carolina on Saturday.
"Many fans have been supportive, some have been very angry. All of us are disappointed," Fulmer said about this season."
Fulmer signed a new seven-year contract in the summer which was worth $2.4 million this season. He will receive $6 million as a buyout of the contract, payable over a 48-month period.
He is the nation's third-winningest active coach among coaches with 10 years of experience, trailing only Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Dubbed the dean of the SEC coaches for his long tenure, Fulmer's teams won two conference titles and seven divisional crowns. But that wasn't enough to save his job.
"It's a tough part of the profession," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
Athletic director Mike Hamilton said Fulmer was asked to stay with the program in an administrative capacity, but Fulmer said he has not decided what he will do next.
Hamilton said he and Fulmer spent a lot of time in recent weeks discussing the direction of the program, and the decision was made to make an announcement with three games remaining to give fans a chance to honor and celebrate the coach.
Tennessee will formally celebrate Fulmer's career on Nov. 29 when the Vols host Kentucky.
"Our discussions leading to coach Fulmer's announcement today did not come without great consternation or thought, but it is in my opinion the best solution given our current circumstances," Hamilton said.
Many visibly upset Tennessee players crowded the small media room for the announcement and gave Fulmer a round of applause as he entered.
"This is bigger than winning or losing or (having) a solid foundation," senior offensive tackle and captain Ramon Foster said. "He just stepped down as far as the end of this year. From the team, we're not really satisfied with that move.
"Tennessee is a family, and we take care of each other. That right there wasn't very standup of Tennessee."
Fulmer met with the players an hour before Monday's public announcement to tell them of the decision, though many had already learned of it from media reports.
Sophomore safety Eric Berry said he expects the Vols to play their last three games against Wyoming, Vanderbilt and Kentucky with a lot of emotion.
"He doesn't want us pointing any fingers right now. He just wants us to stick together and try to finish the season out well," Berry said.
Fulmer earned his first three wins filling in for Johnny Majors while he recovered from surgery. Tennessee officially named Fulmer head coach on Nov. 29, 1992, after forcing out Majors.
News of the announcement traveled quickly around the country, and coaches and former players offered their support.
"This is sad day for the Tennessee family," Indianapolis Colts quarterback and former Tennessee standout Peyton Manning said. "His legacy at Tennessee will be that he built men and won championships. He will always be my coach."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he had much respect for Fulmer and what he has done at Tennessee.
"I can't say enough about what he's done there. From a professional standpoint you hate to see any one of your colleagues go through this kind of thing," he said. "This part of the business is not a good part of the business."