“I absolutely did,” Fulmer said. “I totally did. That’s all I’d ever done, and I’d done it very well.”
Four years later, Fulmer still hasn’t returned to the sidelines.
Though he hasn’t closed the door on the possibility of a comeback, it seems less likely with each passing year. The latest signal of potential closure comes Tuesday when Fulmer is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, an honor that generally comes after an individual has completed his career.
Fulmer will join former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum and 14 former players in getting inducted at a National Football Foundation awards dinner in New York. Coaches must have served at least 10 seasons and 100 games while posting a winning percentage of at least .600 to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Coaches under the age of 70 must have been out of coaching for three years.
Fulmer, 62, says it hasn’t sunk in that he’s about to become a Hall of Famer. After all, he’s younger than most of the other Hall of Fame coaches were upon their induction.
“I’m graciously accepting it,” Fulmer said, “but I’m too dang young.”
The honor has provided him an opportunity to reflect on his career.
Fulmer, who lettered as an offensive guard at Tennessee from 1969-71, won nearly three-quarters of his games and posted a 152-52 record at his alma mater. He coached Tennessee’s first three games in 1992 while Johnny Majors recovered from heart surgery, then took over the program for good at the end of the 1992 regular season and remained in place through 2008. Tennessee won at least 10 games in nine of those years, including a 1998 national championship and a 1997 Southeastern Conference title. The Vols finished in the Top 25 in 13 of his 16 full seasons on the job.
“The consistency is what we were all about,” Fulmer said. “We tried to surround the team with a family kind of atmosphere. We did it all together - one for all, all for one.”
Fulmer’s crowning achievement was the 1998 championship season.
Tennessee went undefeated that year and clinched the national title with a 23-16 Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State. Tennessee won the championship despite having to replace eight overall draft picks and three first-round selections, including 1997 Heisman Trophy runner-up Peyton Manning.
“In a lot of ways, that team felt challenged because everybody didn’t give them a chance to repeat as (SEC) champions or even have a really good team,” Fulmer said. “I think they bonded. They worked really hard. To be honest with you, I probably had three or four other teams that were physically better than that team. It’s just one of those things where the stars don’t line up. You have a tough loss somewhere along the way and you didn’t quite get it done, and that team did.”
The national title capped a four-year stretch from 1995-98 in which Tennessee went 45-5.
When Fulmer looks back, he doesn’t focus on individual games and seasons so much. He takes the most pride in his overall body of work.
“I had a fantastic career at one school, which is unheard of,” Fulmer said. “It being my school made it even more special.”
Tennessee’s consistent success during the Fulmer era represents a major contrast from the instability that has hit the program since his departure. Lane Kiffin replaced Fulmer and stayed only one season before Southern California hired him away. Derek Dooley succeeded Kiffin and was fired Nov. 18 after going 15-21 in three seasons. Tennessee hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since going 10-4 and capturing an Eastern Division title in 2007, Fulmer’s second-to-last year.
Fulmer remains confident that Tennessee can win consistently again. He agreed with athletic director Dave Hart’s comments at the press conference announcing Dooley’s dismissal in regard to the challenges facing Tennessee. He has faith in Hart’s ability to deal with those obstacles.
“I think Dave Hart really does get it,” Fulmer said. “He’s a guy that is strong (enough) to lead our program out from where we are.”
Although Fulmer still refers to Tennessee in the first person, he hasn’t ruled out the idea of coaching elsewhere. Fulmer said he’s had chances to return, but he only wants to coach again if he finds an ideal situation. The opportunities he’s received haven’t been tempting enough to get him to spend that much time away from his family.
As he waits to see if the right coaching opportunity ever comes along, Fulmer works in the investment business as a partner at BPV Capital Management.
“I am competing every day,” Fulmer said. “I’m not nearly ready to retire. I’m just competing in another way.”