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Vindicated Fulmer about to take deserved step into Hall of Fame

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Fulmer says he has no regrets but Tennessee might after going 18-20 since replacing him. (Getty Images)  
Fulmer says he has no regrets but Tennessee might after going 18-20 since replacing him. (Getty Images)  

David Cutcliffe was not the least bit surprised when he learned that his friend, former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, had been named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

"When I looked at who was on the ballot, what they had achieved and what Phillip had achieved it was really a no-brainer," said Cutcliffe, Fulmer's long-time offensive coordinator and now the head coach at Duke. "When you look at what Phillip did and the competition that he did it against, it's very obvious that he has had a Hall of Fame career."

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Fulmer, who was 152-52 in 16 seasons as Volunteers head coach, was joined by former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson and former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum plus 13 players to form the new class for the Hall of Fame that was announced Tuesday in New York City.

"We're just beyond thrilled," said Fulmer, whose 1998 Tennessee team went 13-0 and won the first-ever BCS national championship. "To get in on the first year on the ballot and to join an elite group of people like this is really special. We have a million people to thank."

Fulmer wouldn't say it but others will. Along with the honor of joining the Tennessee contingent in the Hall of Fame, which includes General Robert Neyland, Bobby Dodd, Doug Dickey and many others, Tuesday's announcement included a certain amount of vindication and redemption for the native of Winchester, Tenn.

After spending 30 years at Tennessee as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Fulmer was forced out after going 5-7 in 2008. It was Fulmer's second losing record in a four-season span.

To Fulmer's friends the dismissal seemed abrupt, given the fact that the year before Tennessee had gone 10-4, reaching the SEC Championship Game only to lose to eventual national champion LSU.

"The LSU game was one we easily could have won," said Cutcliffe, who did two tours of duty as Fulmer's OC. "If we win that game, things may have turned out differently."

But after losing his first four games to Florida's new coach (Urban Meyer) and two straight games to Alabama's new coach (Nick Saban) there was a loud element in the Tennessee fan base that was convinced Fulmer had lost his fastball and wasn't going to get it back without Cutcliffe as his offensive coordinator.

They didn't believe Fulmer, the old offensive lineman who preached the boring fundamentals of hard work, had the star power to hang with Saban, Meyer, Les Miles (LSU) and Mark Richt (Georgia). Even Steve Spurrier, Fulmer's former nemesis at Florida, had returned to the SEC at South Carolina (in 2005) and had beaten him a couple of times.

All-Time SEC wins
Coach Wins
Paul "Bear" Bryant 159
Steve Spurrier 116
John Vaught 106
Vince Dooley 105
Phillip Fulmer 98
Ralph "Shug" Jordan 98
Note: Wins do not include SEC Championship games

Fulmer had lost his strongest supporter when longtime athletic director Doug Dickey retired in 2002. And the new AD, Mike Hamilton, wasn't experienced enough or strong enough to stick with Fulmer when the tough times came. Tennessee fans wanted something new and exciting after listening to Fulmer for 16 years. They wanted a rock star coach like Alabama and Florida. So Hamilton fired Fulmer and hired Lane Kiffin.

The rest is bad, bad history for Tennessee. In the three years since Fulmer was let go, Tennessee is 18-20 overall, 8-16 in the SEC. Kiffin stayed one year and bolted for Southern California, leaving a mess for Derek Dooley to clean up the past two seasons. Last season Tennessee, which won almost 75 percent of its games under Fulmer, went 1-7 in the SEC.

But when we talked this week Fulmer didn't want to focus on redemption or validation. He'll let others do that. He did, however, concede that the honor would bring some solace to his wife, Vicki, and his three daughters who took it hard when Fulmer was let go.

"My hope is that it brings them some peace. Maybe," said Fulmer.

From 1995-98 Fulmer put together a record of 45-5 with two SEC championships (1997, '98). In 1995, Tennessee lost one game to Florida, which went undefeated and played Nebraska for the national championship. In 1996 Tennessee's only SEC loss was to Florida, which won the national title.

Yes, his critics will tell you that he was 2-7 against Spurrier, who came to Florida in 1990 and put together one of the greatest runs in SEC history with five conference championships in six seasons (1991-96). But the fact is almost nobody was beating Spurrier in that stretch.

For most of the '90s, Fulmer and Spurrier each began the season in the preseason top five and would set the stage for the SEC championship and the national championship with their annual meeting on the third Saturday in September.

"During that time the SEC East is what the [SEC] West is now," said Fulmer. "There were so many great players and so many great coaches. I was proud to be a part of it."

Fulmer has thought about getting back into coaching over the past three years. He took a serious look at the Kansas job when they hired Turner Gill. Louisville intrigued him because Bobby Petrino proved you could win a championship there. When the Arkansas job suddenly came open in April he let some friends know that he would not mind being in the discussion.

But the right opportunity never came. It is probably just as well. Phillip Fulmer gave his heart to Tennessee when he arrived as a freshman in 1968. For him there was never going to be another color other than the Big Orange.

He doesn't miss the trappings of being a head coach. But he does miss practice and he does miss the intense preparation for a big game and the rush of running through the Block "T" on a Saturday at Neyland Stadium and the joy of holding his daughter's hand as they walked to midfield to for the postgame handshake with the opposing coach. Those things never got old.

But today Phil Fulmer is OK. In fact, he's better than OK. He has a partnership in a successful wealth management company. He gets to travel. He recently took part in a dinner to honor Pat Summitt, who just retired as UT's Hall of Fame women's basketball coach. He is a grandfather, "which is not overrated at all."

Coach, husband, father, grandfather. On Dec. 4 in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Phillip Fulmer will add another title to that impressive list.

Hall of Famer.

"All I can say is that I had one of the best groups of coaches a head coach could ever want. And I had a great family who supported me," said Fulmer. "We did it the right way, and we did it at a place I loved [Tennessee] and still love. There are no regrets."


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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