It's Official: Fulmer Returns As Tennessee's New AD

Replaces Disgraced Currie After Bungled Coach Search

Friday, December 1, 2017 - by Larry Fleming
Phillip Fulmer is Tennesee's new athletic director.
Phillip Fulmer is Tennesee's new athletic director.
- photo by Tennessee Athletics

Once again on Friday, there was heavy Twitter traffic with people shouting from rooftops about Tennessee’s bungled efforts surrounding athletic director John Currie’s feeble attempt to find a successor for fired coach Butch Jones.

Currie botched deals/offers to Ohio State's Greg Schiano – vociferous fan objections played a big part in tearing down that potential, but controversial suitor – and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, North Carolina State's Dave Doeren and lastly Mike Leach of Washington State.

Currie made an offer to Brohm he wasn’t authorized to put on the table and took an unauthorized trip to talk with Leach over lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant. When Beverly Davenport, the school’s chancellor, finally spoke with Currie on Thursday afternoon, she ordered him back to Knoxville and promptly suspended him Friday morning – barely nine months after he got the job and became the highest-paid AD in the SEC.

He was suspended with pay. Davenport said final details of Currie’s deal have not been finalized and the school plans to investigate whether it can terminate him with cause.

One tortured soul took to Twitter and somehow, from beneath all the rubble strewn around the country by Currie’s errant impossible mission, found three words to describe Tennessee’s bungled coach search:

“What a mess,” he said.

Just minutes after Currie was kicked out of his on-campus corner office, a national champion coach who has Hall of Fame credentials in his portfolio, stepped into that mess. Phillip Fulmer proved once again that the University of Tennessee has meaning to him.

And, he sounded like a high-spirited teenaged cheerleader in accepting Davenport’s challenge to find a new coach and be the new AD “for the foreseeable future, take the reins of the search and soothe the troubled waters that have battered the Vols’ football program.

“Turning our situation (football) around will require teamwork,” Fulmer said. “There’s an old saying: ‘It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.’ That cooperative spirit will drive my approach. We need energy; we need passion and focus from every Vol fan, alumni, coach and athlete. Lets be so unified and enthusiastic that we even win over the naysayers.”

There are plenty of doubters – and solid backers – around the country and both groups found themselves tortured by the embarrassing search Currie conducted.

“I have been a part of the University of Tennessee’s athletic program when it has been at its best,” the former UT player and coach said at an afternoon press conference. “I have seen what honest communication, trust and hard work can achieve. It is my mission to lead our entire athletics department in a way that honors our university’s legacy and insist on success.”

While Fulmer has no AD experience, he has 40 years of what it takes to make a program click. He is expected to receive $575.000 in annual compensation.

Despite that fact, Davenport seemed pleased Fulmer accepted the job. 

"No one better understands the storied history of Vol athletics and its deep connection to alumni and fans, and I believe he will be a unifying presence for all of us committed to the university's success," she said in a university release.

The idea of taking on a pressure-cooker assignment to find a new coach, halt widespread mocking the program has endured over the last five days while attempting to help secure a splintering 2018 recruiting class and steady the ship, is no small task.

“I hope to be a stabilizing and unifying force,” said Fulmer, the second-winningest (152-52-1) coach in Tennessee history. “I just had the chance to visit with a bunch of wonderful people, the staff, and I’ll see the football team in just a little bit. Everyone wants to be a champion here. Everybody wants to win.

“What we need is communication, trust, and working together to make it happen going forward without looking back at the last nine years.”

The quick succession of Currie's firing and Fulmer's hiring indicated Davenport wanted to get away from the wacky past six days that saw Tennessee widely panned.

Said Davenport: "Phillip Fulmer will begin serving as athletic director effective immediately. I have taken these steps in the best interest of the university."

Fulmer led the Vols to the 1998 BCS national championship and claimed SEC titles in 1997 and 1998. He was selected SEC Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year in 1998. Fulmer was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

He played on the offensive line, was a team captain in 1971 and graduated in 1972. With Fulmer shining on the field, the Vols went 30-5, won the SEC title and a Sugar Bowl game during his career from 1969-71.

Fulmer is believed to have received a two-year contract. He began earning his money Friday night when he sent an email to every student-athlete at the university.

Currie’s top assistant, Reid Sigmon, was considered for the AD position, but it was Fulmer out front and holding court with media reps at the press conference.

With Fulmer leading the way, Tennessee will hopefully soon land its fifth coach in 11 years.

That won’t be easy, but neither was suffering through a terribly frustrating 2017 season that saw the Vols post their first-ever eight-loss campaign, lose to Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the same season for the first time in 53 years and go winless in the SEC for the first time since the league formed in 1933.

All these factors formed a snowball rolling down a mountain, quickly gaining momentum and culminated with Davenport’s decision to make a change.

“Early (Thursday) afternoon I asked John Currie to return to Knoxville before going forward with the search,” Davenport said. “When there are high expectations at a great place, those expectations come with challenges and challenges require tough decisions. Today required one of those decisions.”

When asked during a question-and-answer segment about whether there was one “tipping point” that brought Davenport to her decision to dump Currie, she said no, but admitted the last week has been tough.

“It has been a difficult week,” she said. “It has been a difficult road to get where we are. This has not been an easy process for any of us. I want again to thank Vol Nation for their support of this great university. Please know my goals and our goals are the same. Yes, we want a successful football program and, yes, we believe in this great university and its potential.

“I want you to know that I regret deeply any hurt that’s been caused.”

Fulmer is confident he’ll have no real problems finding interested coaches for the open vacancy at Tennessee, adding: “I haven’t established a timetable because it has happened so fast. I definitely think there will be people that will be interested.”

Fulmer also said he would be actively involved in trying to keep intact, or even expand, the 2018 recruiting class. It already has suffered significant losses with de-commitments, including 5-star offensive lineman Cade Mays from Knoxville Catholic.

The new AD was known as a great recruiter during his coaching days and the talent on some of those teams in the 1990s, proved that the accolades were true.

“Recruiting is the backbone of what we do and we’ll work to keep our commitments until the new coach gets here. I think there may be some guys out there that might be interested in Tennessee that weren’t interested before.”

Fulmer is now charged with finding that new coach and quickly ruled himself out of serving as Butch Jones’ replacement, but his coaching experience will come in handy in determining who does.

Earlier in the press conference, Davenport was asked why she didn’t give Currie a chance to work out a deal with Leach, who had publicly said he was interested in the Tennessee job.

She didn’t go down that rabbit hole.

“I want to be clear,” she said sternly. “We’re here today to talk about the change in the leadership of the athletics department. I’m not going to talk about any coaches at other schools or places.”

OK. Next question.

(Contact Larry Fleming at and on Twitter @larryfleming44)

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