Sept. 24, 2013
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- Phillip Fulmer returned Tuesday to the field where he spent most of his fall afternoons for the better part of 40 years. The former Tennessee player, assistant and head coach made his first appearance at Haslam Field since leaving the program at the end of the 2008 season.
Fulmer, who won 152 games at UT from 1992-2008 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012, took up current Vol head coach Butch Jones on his offer to become involved in the program he helped mold.
"It's good to be back," Fulmer said while watching position groups go through drills. "I'm just here to be supportive. Butch certainly has brought a good spirit to the team, to the practice field. It's obvious he cares about Tennessee."
As a Tennessee native and student-athlete, it came naturally to Fulmer to convey the meaning of being a Volunteer and representing the state to his teams. Seeing the way Jones has embraced that meaning and put in the effort to share it with his players left Fulmer impressed.
"I like the fact that he's preaching to the kids that we're not trying to build a tradition, we're trying to get one back," he said. "I had the opportunity to speak to the kids and tried to reiterate a little bit of that and what they represent, the great payers and things that have been here that have been so really special to this place."
Jones was equally excited to have Fulmer on campus and available to his team.
"He means so much to our football program," Jones said. "To have an individual of that, he's a part of this great football program. I think our players really enjoyed it, I know I did and our staff did."
The challenges that Jones faces this season follow a familiar path that Fulmer was faced with in his time at UT. In 2000 and 2004, Tennessee entered fall camp with uncertainty at the quarterback position, with upperclassmen with limited game experience battling talented freshmen for playing time. But it wasn't those battles, eventually won by Casey Clausen and Erik Ainge, that struck a chord with Fulmer when compared to Team 117. It was a 1994 team that emerged from early adversity to win on the field and a place in his heart.
"I told them today that a team that I had that was 1-3 at the beginning of the year, and as it turned out ended up being one of my favorite teams," Fulmer said of the 1994 squad that rallied from the slow start to win seven of its final eight games, including shutouts of Kentucky and Vanderbilt and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. "That team laid the foundation for what turned out to be the best era in Tennessee modern history. That's this team's goal, to be the very best they can be daily, and that's exactly what Butch said to them in his meetings today. I think he's exactly on the right page and hopefully we'll continue getting better and better."
"He definitely had everyone's attention," Jones said of the message that Fulmer delivered to the team prior to practice. "When he speaks, there's a presence about him, he commands respect. He had a great message of not only what it means to play at Tennessee, but about some of the teams that have played here in the past and the expectation that we have here."
The passion that he has for the program was evident in Fulmer's eyes as he looked out over Haslam Field from the sidelines. He relished the opportunity to be back home on the field, supporting the school that gave him so much.
"It was a little emotional, being the first time back," Fulmer said. "I'm glad to be here. As I've told them, any way I can help."