Phillip Fulmer shows somber mood as he steps aside to let successor pick next Tennessee football coach
He'll depart after more than three years on the job having failed to achieve his goal.
Fulmer, the former Vols football coach, will step down as AD after Tennessee completes a search to hire his replacement. He'll leave behind a football program that is without a coach after Jeremy Pruitt was fired for cause Monday amid an NCAA recruiting scandal that the university expects will result in NCAA Level I and II violations.
“None of us, obviously, are pleased to be here under these circumstances," Fulmer said during a news conference Monday. "We are all deeply disappointed in the individuals who engaged in the behavior" that resulted in the for-cause firings of Pruitt, assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton and seven staff members in recruiting, player personnel and support.
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UT hired Fulmer in December 2017 when its football coaching search under AD John Currie went off the tracks. Fulmer took the reins of the search and hired Pruitt days later. Pruitt compiled a 16-19 record in three seasons.
Like Currie, Fulmer's exit coincides with a coaching search.
UT will replace Fulmer first and task the next athletics director with leading the search to replace Pruitt. The change atop the football program factored prominently into Fulmer's decision to step down.
“The unexpected need to hire a new coach caused me to reevaluate my place in the organization," Fulmer said. "I knew we need stability and continuity at Tennessee, and our next football coach needs to be on our sideline for 10 years or more, and I am confident that we will find that coach. But, also, I am confident that he will want and need to know who his athletic director is going to be for the duration (of his tenure).”
Chancellor Donde Plowman reiterated that Fulmer made the decision to step down so that his successor could hire Pruitt's replacement and that Fulmer's exit is not tied to the ongoing investigation.
The university has retained Parker Executive Search to help with the AD search.
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“This is a great opportunity here," Plowman said. "This is a major athletics program and a major university in this country and with passionate fans and a commitment to excellence and winning that I think is going to appeal to a lot of candidates."
As for the football program, Kevin Steele will serve as acting head coach, and the next AD will be tasked with filling the position ahead of the 2021 season. Steele, a UT alumnus, had been hired as an assistant coach last week after five seasons as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
Plowman acknowledged that some might think hiring a football coach should take precedence over filling the AD position, but she doesn't believe that is a stable way to build an athletic department.
“That’s not the foundation for a strong program," Plowman said. "Great ADs hire great coaches, and we’re going to start with a great AD.”
Fulmer was anointed AD by Plowman's predecessor, Beverly Davenport, just hours after Davenport fired Currie. The news conference announcing that 2017 leadership change featured a celebratory mood despite the AD transition occurring as a result of a firing in the midst of a wayward coaching search.
That came in stark contrast to Monday's scene. Fulmer spoke in a somber tone, and Plowman and UT System President Randy Boyd made clear that they won't stand for the malfeasance that emerged from the football program.
Fulmer forced a smile as Boyd said Tennessee remains as proud of Fulmer today as it did on Jan. 4, 1999, in Tempe, Arizona, when Fulmer hoisted the crystal ball in celebration of Tennessee's national championship victory over Florida State.
"This university owes you a deep debt of gratitude for all that you’ve done to make Volunteer nation proud," Boyd said.
Fulmer received a four-year contract after his hire as AD, and in May he quietly received a two-year contract extension while preparing his athletic department for financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The extension means Fulmer’s contract runs through Dec. 31, 2023, and it increased his buyout.
“We did not anticipate (when Fulmer received the extension) that there would be a termination case against Jeremy," Plowman said. "We did not anticipate any of these violations
A Tennessee native, Fulmer played for the Vols before becoming an assistant coach. He served as head coach at Tennessee from 1992-2008 after wresting the job from Johnny Majors.
Tennessee forced Fulmer out after he went 5-7 in 2008, and the football program has endured a carousel of coaches since then.
Fulmer had been passed over for the AD job in favor of Currie, but Currie's tenure lasted eight months and ended before he could complete a chaotic coaching search.
“We owe him a lot," Plowman said of Fulmer. "He stepped out of retirement to calm the waters and lead that department three years ago before I got here, and, once again, he’s offered to bridge the gap between this coach and the next one.”
Fulmer hired Pruitt less than a week into his tenure. After the Vols went 8-5 last season in Pruitt's second year on the job, Fulmer awarded him a two-year contract extension, a raise beginning this year and an increased buyout.
Fulmer pledged he'd help Tennessee jump-start its slumbering football program, and he upped UT's financial commitment to its coaching staff. Pruitt enjoyed one of the top-paid staffs in the country.
Nonetheless, the Vols endured a six-game losing streak this season, matching the program's longest skid since 1988.
Although Fulmer didn't solve the Vols’ football woes, Tennessee placed 25th in the Directors' Cup standings in 2019, its best finish since 2011. The Directors’ Cup factors in performance across all sports. The Directors’ Cup was nixed in 2020 after winter and spring sports seasons did not finish because of the pandemic.
Fulmer’s other major move as athletics director came in 2019, when he fired women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick and replaced her with Kellie Harper, who played for the Lady Vols under Pat Summitt.
He also hired volleyball coach Eve Rackham and men’s golf coach Brennan Webb, and he signed men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and baseball coach Tony Vitello to contract extensions. Barnes nearly left UT for UCLA in April 2019, with Barnes admitting that he would have become the Bruins’ coach if not for a hurdle with his buyout. By staying at UT, Barnes received a sweetened deal that made him one of college basketball’s top-paid coaches.
Fulmer inherited a Neyland Stadium renovation project that the UT Board of Trustees approved in November 2017. The project called for a renovation of the stadium’s south end zone to be completed by the start of the 2021 season.
After his hire, Fulmer paused the project to evaluate its design and scope.
Last November, Tennessee unveiled revamped plans while staying within the project’s $180 million budget. The reconfigured plans extended the project timeline, calling for it to be carried out in phases through 2023.
Stadium improvements so far include a new LED ribbon board unveiled in 2019 and an upgraded sound system installed before this season, with more sweeping stadium renovations on tap. Tennessee also announced plans to improve the Anderson Training Center in a separate project.
Fulmer was all smiles less than a year ago. Spirits buoyed by Tennessee’s six-game winning streak to finish the 2019 season, Fulmer roared at a recruiting event that “The Vols are back!”
That proved premature, and Fulmer was left to wonder Monday how a recruiting scandal that resulted in Pruitt’s firing will affect the future of the football program Fulmer loves.
“This is very unfortunate in the sense that we’re going to have to work really hard to keep it from setting us back," Fulmer said.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.