Phil Fulmer called me.
When an SEC head coach calls out of the blue he doesn't want to borrow a few bucks. It was a couple of years ago. The Tennessee coach had called about some mindless thing I'd written in a blog. It was during the seemingly endless run of the program's off-field problems at the time.
I had posted something flippant in a blog which, for me, wasn't surprising. What was surprising was Fulmer calling at that moment (I was in the Atlanta airport), at that time (it was in the middle of summer) to pick a bone.
I had no problem with it. In fact, I wish more coaches would call in person if they have a problem with a story. It can't hurt and keeps the lines of communication open. We hung up that day with whatever problem there was, resolved.
Still, I thought it was odd that a high profile, big-time SEC coach would call me about a blog. I'm no expert on blogs but, to me, you can get away with certain things in a blog that you might not in a regular story. As long as your name is on it, then it's just another way of communicating.
Anyway, it seemed that day that was Fulmer was cultivating a media "friend." Nothing wrong with that. I'm closer to some coaches than others. I wouldn't call any one of the I-A guys "friends". First, they're in a different tax bracket. Second, a guy like me is basically a bug smashed on their windshield.
Our common interest is between the lines. In this business, it's always nice if you can call or text a guy and just gossip. We're not all about ripping.
As we know now, Fulmer didn't have many friends in the media at the end. The only thing easier to beat up before Monday was a piñata.
That was unfair. Fulmer is one of the decent ones. He's not a crook. He's doesn't have a fundamental personality flaw that needs to be addressed by professionals such as one Robert Montgomery Knight. He is a son of the South, a proud Vol and a hell of a coach.
His sin was letting the program get stale. It happens. Everywhere. Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer once said that after 10 years the average NFL coach gets stale no matter what. The message becomes old. The players stop listening. It's time to go.
Phil Fulmer lasted 17 years if you count his 4-0 record in 1992. He delivered five SEC East titles, two SEC titles and a national championship. As recently as 11 months ago, Tennessee was playing for the SEC title.
Still, things were stale. The popular theory is that the loss of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe contributed to the downfall. I don't think even Cutcliffe could have made chicken salad out of Jonathan Crompton. That Tennessee -- once the cradle of quarterbacks -- couldn't find someone better Crompton was an indictment of Fulmer's recruiting.
I talked to a big-time offensive coordinator last week who had visited the Tennessee staff in the offseason. He had nothing but good things to say. Believe me, he would have ripped them if it was warranted. This guy holds nothing back.
Still, things were stale. It was more than irony that the loss that finally got him out was to his old nemesis. The Old Ball Coach, lacking some of his old mojo, punked Fulmer one more time.
Everything started to change for coaches everywhere at the beginning of this decade. Bob Stoops won a national championship in his second year at Oklahoma. He was followed quickly by Jim Tressel who won in his second season. Urban Meyer did the same thing in 2006.
Maybe Phil should consider himself lucky for getting this far. Fans have little patience, especially when three other SEC coaches have either gone undefeated and/or won national championships since Tennessee's in 1998.
The fifth-winningest active coach in I-A was only third in his own conference. Patience? There is little left these days for coaches who don't deliver immediately, or enough. Fulmer's departure also makes it four I-A coaches this year who have either resigned or been fired during the season.
Things were stale, maybe, but how many ADs would like a .766 coach? That's why it will take something special for Fulmer to get into coaching right away. He is overqualified for most jobs. His star has dimmed, perhaps, in the SEC. His dignity would prevent him from going to non-BCS level for a job.
Shed no tears. The guy is walking away with at least $6 million from Tennessee. He still has a lot of energy left. I'm thinking he might resurface as an offensive line coach in the NFL. There's a lot less crap to deal with at that level.
Where does Tennessee go from here? First, whoever is hired must know that it's AD Mike Hamilton's neck on the line too. Hamilton got mouthy in Fulmer's final days, basically throwing his coach under the bus. The AD better deliver, big time. That means a coach capable of recruiting his butt off (Tennessee simply doesn't have many players), winning more than 75 percent of his games and, oh yeah, delivering a national championship.
Does that eliminate defensive coordinator John Chavis? He seems to be a popular choice. Mike Leach is going to be mentioned for every opening and then end up on the sidelines again next season for Texas Tech. Hamilton might go the up-and-coming route. Tulsa's Todd Graham and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly have been mentioned.
If it comes to that, I favor Kelly. Michigan dismissed him out of hand because he had once coached at Central Michigan. Bad move. Tennessee shouldn't be limiting itself. That includes at least a courtesy call to Steve Spurrier to see if he is interested.
After the laughing dies down, Spurrier might give Hamilton a couple of names.
Kelly, though, is the no-nonsense type who has won a Division II national championship and been able to succeed at two non-descript mid-majors (Central Michigan and Cincinnati).
Tennessee is a destination job. After being at three schools in six years, Kelly could retire in Knoxville. One other thing: Kelly knows how to develop quarterbacks.
At a program that is in decline but hasn't crumbled, that's a great place to start.