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Fulmer, Hutton headline Boyd Spring Banquet

Local Jonathan Hutton was the emcee and Phillip Fulmer was the guest speaker at the Boyd Spring Banquet.

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Before becoming one of the more recognizable little league coaches in Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer was a staple on the sidelines at Neyland Stadium. Hundreds of local Vol fans, many of which were clad in Big Orange, got to hear Fulmer tell tales of his time on the Hill Thursday night at Bridgestone Learning Center.

Fulmer and Jonathan Hutton, a local who has grown into one of the biggest media personalities in the Nashville area, captivated an audience gathered for the Boyd Spring Banquet. Fulmer, a regular at the event that raises money for the local school, had a big smile on his face as he talked about some of the fondest moments in UT football history, but he made sure to start with giving fans an important update of his coaching resume.

“I’m the assistant to the assistant for pee wee baseball,” said Fulmer with a laugh, letting everybody his current coaching revolves around his grandchildren’s sports endeavors now.

While Fulmer has been out of the coaching spotlight for years, compiling a 152-52 record in Knoxville and winning the very first BCS National Championship before retiring in 2008, he’s still as loyal as ever to his alma mater. He most recently served as the school’s athletic director for three years before retiring again early last year.

Through all the wins – most notably the famous Fiesta Bowl after the 1998 season that secured the school’s first national championship in 47 years – and the elite players he guided in the Orange and White, Fulmer let people know that life “will humble you.” He provided two examples – the first coming early in his coaching career and another about how he’s remembered now to many people.

“We had lost a game and the next morning I was heading to do my TV show (and not looking forward to it) when I stopped at a service station. It was one I stopped at frequently and they’ll support win or lose. Well, that day an elderly gentleman came out. It was one of those places that had a guy to pump your gas for you,” recalled Fulmer. “I went im and got my newspaper and coffee and went back outside. When I got out there, he asked, ‘You follow the Vols?’ I said, ‘I follow them pretty close,’ and already knew where it was going to go when he asked what I thought about the game.

“I said something about taking care of the ball and he said, ‘Until they get rid of the Fulmer guy, they’ll never have a good team.’ Coaching can be humbling.”

Fulmer didn’t mind taking the heat, but made it a point to return the next week after the Vols won. The only disappointment was not getting to see his old friend from the week before.

“The next week, we got the win and I needed gas again on Sunday. I went to the service station to pick up my coffee and newspaper and I was (kind of) looking for the guy. I asked about the guy I had seen the week before and they said, ‘Coach, we saw him talking to you outside last week and when he came inside, we asked him what coach Fulmer had said. He quit on the spot,’” Fulmer remembered with a laugh.

Fulmer got another big chuckle from the crowd while telling the story of his dealings with fame after starring in “The Blind Side,” alongside Sandra Bullock.

“I can be out walking in a city and people will stop me on the street and say, ‘I know you! You were in that movie.’ Forty years of coaching, four minutes in a movie – they remember the movie,” joked Fulmer.

Hutton also got in on the light-hearted mood of the night, letting Fulmer know that “I’ve never heard a bad word about you… unless I’m in Alabama.” Boyd’s introducer Kevin Rhoton was extremely complimentary of Hutton, who is one of the headliners on the popular Outkick360 show that is available weekdays from 2-5 p.m. on the Outkick platform and YouTube.

“(We’re) Very happy to have Jonathan here and you can see how proud his parents are of him. You can see the beam of light over their table,” said Rhoton.

Along with having coach Fulmer at the event, Boyd also held an auction to raise more money for the school. Boyd administration noted that tuition covers roughly 60 percent of school costs, so fundraisers like the banquet and other activities make sure the school with over 40 years of history in the community can continue to operate.

At the end of the night, Boyd’s president of the board Tim Akers said there were three things people can do for the school – Pray for Boyd, enroll students and make donations. Contact Boyd Christian School at 473-9631 if you would like to help the cause for the Christian school or set up a tour for prospective students.

Boyd would like to thank Hutton, Bridgestone, Prater's BBQ, DM Simpson, Belk Grocery, Jason Gross and Keith Hamilton for helping assist in this year’s Spring Banquet.

More with Fulmer

For over an hour, coach Fulmer and Hutton had a casual back-and-forth about a number of topics, ranging from Fulmer’s recruitment to Tennessee, his time as coach and AD, the current landscape of college athletics and much more. Check below for Fulmer’s comments from Thursday night.

Applying his background to his coaching

Fulmer grew up in Winchester, where he was a talented football and baseball player. When asked about what he could take from his younger days and influences into coaching, he wasn’t shy to let people know how he was molded.

“Upbringing means a lot. Family is big. My dad worked two jobs my whole life, sometimes three. I remember attending FCA camps and those were big for us and getting a chance. When I went to college football, it was different and you meet different people. I can’t say we didn't sometimes find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, but we tried to live like we were supposed to live,” said Fulmer. “The same foundations stayed with me - stayed with me with marriage and stayed with me when I had a chance to be a coach. I never thought about coaching, but I had somebody say, ‘I think you’d be good at it.’

“The same things remained through team building – it was a family unit. We really worked at it. We had the same coaches for a long time. Our children grew up together. We made decisions for what was best for all of us. We had the best run in the modern history (of UT football). I’m proud of that.”

Fulmer’s playing career and a lost chance at being a linebacker

Before the pair dove into Fulmer’s long list of great moments as a Tennessee coach, Hutton took time to ask about playing career. It’s a topic rarely covered anymore after Fulmer spent decades on the sidelines, but he still recalls one thing that upset him about his days in pads.

“I was a linebacker in high school. Back then, they just recruited the best athletes and just put them where they best fit. At the time, Tennessee had a great run of All-American Linebackers – Jim Reynolds, Steve Kiner to name a few. But they moved me to guard and I’m still mad about it. I would’ve been a better linebacker,” said Fulmer.

Bucking the Bear on the recruiting trail

If there was a time where an audible gasp could be heard in the crowd, it was when Fulmer informed the gathered masses that he had originally committed to the University of Alabama. While Fulmer would later rise to the top of UT lore in large part to his success against the Crimson Tide (he snapped a long losing streak to Bama in 1993 with a tie, then won 10 matchups from 1995-2006) on the ‘Third Saturday of October,’ the allure of playing for legendary coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant almost changed his trajectory in the late 1960s.

“I was committed to Alabama and coach Bryant, then coach Dickey [Fulmer’s coach and the man who hired him to lead the program later] and the Vols beat Alabama my junior year. It changed my mind – growing up in Tennessee and playing for Tennessee is the best thing I could do,” recalled Fulmer.

It wasn’t easy to make the change though. First, Fulmer tried to get his father to tell the Bear he was going to Tennessee. “My dad told me, ‘You’re about 18 and you need to man up,’” laughed Fulmer. When he finally made the call, Bryant let him know that the Vols wouldn’t beat Alabama [Editor's note: Fulmer enrolled in 1968 and played from 1969-71 - Tennessee beat the Tide in 1969 and 1970.]

The selling points that Tennessee had on Alabama to Fulmer, other than the pull to represent his home state, was baseball and Bryant’s age. Ultimately, neither mattered much.

“We had a great baseball team at Franklin County and I loved baseball. Bear said I couldn’t play baseball and Tennessee said I could play baseball and football. That first spring at UT, I went to see coach Dickey about baseball and he said, ‘Well, you just moved from linebacker to guard. Maybe next spring.' I never played baseball,” said Fulmer.

As for Bryant, he wouldn’t let Fulmer forget about switching allegiances at the last minute.

“I played four years at Tennessee and was a graduate assistant one year. I also went to Wichita State for five years and spent a year at Vanderbilt before I came back to Tennessee as an offensive line coach. We’re playing Alabama my first year back and I’m warming up my guys when Bear comes over and says, ‘I haven’t retired yet, boy.’ He never forgot,” said Fulmer.

Living by the ABC’s – Always Be ‘Cruitin

Sometimes referred to as “The Big Fisherman,” in his days in Knoxville, Fulmer is well known for his recruiting prowess. Even his role in the “The Blind Side,” was built around Fulmer’s ability to reel in kids to Tennessee. While he was a famous for his home visits, including Hutton pointing out Fulmer was known for washing dishes after meals, he didn’t stop recruiting kids when they put on the uniform.

To get the best players on the offensive line, he would make strolls to the other side of the ball to poach players.

“I’d walk over by the defensive line drills and they’d ask what I was doing and I told them, ‘I’m recruiting.’ The guys I took from defense had the temperament. There were (also) defensive players who had to play offense like I did. The offensive line is the last stop before the bus stop,” said Fulmer.

A few of his former pupils were in the crowd Thursday, including one Fulmer called out while talking about recruiting. Ray Robinson, a mauler who was on the famous SugarVols team in 1985, was one who made the cut despite some sketchy film work.

“Ray was one of the exceptions (on taking defensive players and making them linemen). We recruited Ray as an offensive lineman out of Woodbury. The first film, they filmed everything from the waist down and I said ‘I don’t think we can make a decision from this,' but we got some other film and he’s a guy that looks like you’re supposed to as a lineman,” said Fulmer.

Landing Peyton Manning

When asked about his most famous football recruit – Peyton Manning – Fulmer talked about how it took going back and mending some fences from the 1960s before getting the family comfortable with Tennessee.

“In 1968, Tennessee played Ole Miss and won pretty big. Before 1969, somebody asked one of our linebackers if ‘Ole Miss had the horses to win the SEC?’ He told them how we had played them the year before and they ‘looked like mules.’ Also, they were asked about Archie Manning and he had a rough game the year before, so Kiner asked back, ‘Archie Who?’ When we went to recruit Peyton, we showed up in New Orleans, got to the door and Olivia (Manning) askes, ‘Do you know Steve Kiner?’ I spent 30 minutes apologizing about ‘Archie Who?,’” laughed Fulmer.

It probably helped that Archie got the last laugh in 1969. “It was 31-0 before we made a first down. I got hit in the head by Jack Daniels bottles. They were hot and ready to get after us,” recalled Fulmer on the rematch.

Through it all, Fulmer was able to get the relationship to work out with the Manning family. It didn’t hurt that the Vols played an appealing style with a proven record they could develop QBs under guru David Cutcliffe. If that wasn’t enough, a former Fulmer teammate came through with an assist.

“Peyton loved that we had Heath Shuler and loved how we threw the ball. He also loved we were younger, progressive coaches. Cutcliffe had a good relationship with Peyton and Archie and I were friends. We knew each other pretty well because of Bobby Scott, who was the QB while I was at Tennessee and he was Archie’s backup quarterback with the Saints,” said Fulmer.

A snowstorm on Manning’s trip to Knoxville helped seal the deal. Fulmer recalled that they couldn’t get Peyton out on Sunday or Monday, then didn’t really wanted to get him out by Tuesday. “I think the extra days with him really helped him see us as normal people,” said Fulmer.

He noted that Peyton showed up at Tennessee not looking to be the starter, though it was thrust on him anyway as a freshman. “He wanted to be a freshman and learn, but Todd Helton and Jerry Colquitt got hurt and it was his turn,” said Fulmer about Manning’s first year in 1994.

By his junior year, Manning was already projected as the clear-cut No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Instead of going pro though, Manning decided to come back for his senior year, a decision he shared with Fulmer the night before the announcement. Peyton swore Fulmer to secrecy that night and the coach joked that he wouldn’t even tell his wife about what the star QB was going to do the next day.

Arch Manning – the next great QB from the legendary family

Hutton quizzed Fulmer about Arch Manning, the nephew of Super Bowl winners Peyton and Eli Manning. Arch is considered the top high school prospect for the 2023 class and is being coveted by all colleges. Fulmer believes he’s worth the attention.

“I’ve seen a lot of good quarterbacks in my time. (Arch) is right at the top of the list of guys who can come in and play. It’s a tough position (for him) to walk in and follow the people he has to follow (in his family),” said Fulmer.

He also shared a funny story about how the game has changed from the time the family’s patriarch – Archie Manning – was playing to new style of play.

“Archie and Arch were driving down the road and Archie felt like it was a key moment and a time he could tell Arch what it means to be a quarterback in the SEC (and the NFL). Archie was telling him how important it is to command the huddle and really take advantage of that moment. Arch turned to Red – that’s what the family calls Archie – and says, ‘Well, we never huddle.’ So that was fun for them,” said Fulmer.

Battling Spurrier and Florida for the top spot in the SEC

While Fulmer and the Vols won the first-ever BCS National Championship, college football has changed so much more since 1998. Polls had decided the national champion before the computers took over in 1998, but now there is a four-team playoff to anoint the top team.

Fulmer knows the current system would’ve been a big benefit during his coaching days.

“If we had the playoff they have now back then, I think the 95, 97, 98, 99 and 2001 teams were all playoff teams. The only thing is – so was Florida. There were strange things happening back then [in the UT-Florida series] – the Gaffney catch, the ball coming out from (Jay) Graham on a first-down dive,” said Fulmer.

He played down the rivalry with Steve Spurrier, a legendary heel for Vol fans because of his well-known teases of the Tennessee program. “You can’t spell Citrus without UT,” was one of Spurrier’s famous taunts, referencing the frequent trips to the Citrus Bowl for the Vols in the 1990s.

Fulmer joked that “Steve loves Steve and he loves to talk about Steve,” but that their barbs back in the day were born out of mutual respect and the legendary battles.

“People think we’re enemies, but we’re good friends. We’re competitors and we want to win. When we beat them in 2001, they were No. 2 and we were No. 4 and 18-point underdogs. We used that and I tell people that we ran Steve out of college football,” laughed Fulmer, noting Spurrier moved to coach the Washington Redskins in 2002.

The 1998 Synergy Stick

When Hutton asked Fulmer about the moment he believed the 1998 team would be special, the Hall of Fame coach didn’t point to a single play. While many people like to reference Clint Stoerner's stumble and fumble, Deon Grant’s one-handed interception against Florida, Jeff Hall’s game-winning kicks, Tee Martin’s long run against Syracuse in the season opener or Peerless Price taking over the Fiesta Bowl, Fulmer said the real moment where it clicked centered around a walking stick.

“I had a friend from Gatlinburg who made me a walking stick and took it out to practice one day and asked the guys what they thought about it. They said, “You look like Moses.’ At first, I thought how Moses was old and gray, so I told somebody to take it away. That night, I started thinking about it and thought about how Moses led the people to the Promised Land,” said Fulmer. “The next day, I had everybody move in a circle. I walked out with the stick in my hand and told them how talented they were and how prepared we were. I finished by saying, ‘If you’ll listen to us, we’ll lead you to the Promise Land. We’ll win a national championship.’”

To Fulmer's surprise, the team bought into the magic. The Synergy Stick, as it was deemed, was at every meeting, on every bus ride and stayed with the team all year. Team captains carried it everywhere and shared it among the team, with it’s existence staying a secret until the end of the year.

Hutton asked about its current whereabouts and Fulmer was quick to let him know he still owns it.

“I still have it, though I have offered it to some people. They need it,” said Fulmer.

On Al Wilson becoming a dominating linebacker and leader: “He was great the moment he walked on campus. I had to tell him I’d give him every opportunity to play safety or we wouldn’t have gotten him, but the first scrimmage the offense ran a play-action pass and Al – playing 16 yards deep – hits the running back in the hole and they throw a pass where he was supposed to be. He looked at me and asked, ‘I’m a linebacker aren’t I?’

“I’ve never seen anybody - through his body language and his power – have that effect on the campus. I called him in for his senior year and told him how we lost a lot of leadership – we lost Leonard Little, Peyton Manning, 12 draft picks. I needed him to be vocal and be an influence on the defense and offense. Al took that team and put in on his back. We just had to not screw it up because they were that talented.”

Current NIL/Recruiting/Portal

Fulmer made some strong statements on the NIL and the state of current recruiting, saying that “it’s crazy. For 150 years of college football, we have believed that amateurism is important. Everybody was playing on the same field – well, honestly, that’s not 100 percent true because some weren’t following.

“The NCAA isn’t there for us and federal government (will likely) have to take control of it. I’m worried about our sport. I’m worried for what college athletics has meant. I don’t think it’ll get there, but I’m worried it could be where there are 50-60 schools, four leagues and the pro football model.

“I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair. You look at it like this – a kid at MTSU plays really well and then he’s going into the portal and going up. Then MTSU is going to go get UTC’s top player (and so on) --- who are you loyal to? If you’re signing with a university, you should be loyal to that school.”

Time as AD and state of UT athletics

When things seemed to be unraveling nationally for Tennessee in 2018, the university turned to Fulmer to stabilize the ship. He was brought in as athletic director during a football coaching search that had been panned by national writers and ended up spending three years at the job.

Fulmer enjoyed the gig – one that afforded him the opportunity to bring together a splintering university.

“I loved (the job). We were in such a mess. It wasn’t just what happened in the last 10 years, but it was going back the last 20 years. I worked with the campus and chancellors to get back on the same page. The first two years were so fun. We were putting the team back together – putting the family back together,” said Fulmer. “We wanted every sport to be important – I think the coaches appreciated that I showed up for tennis practices, I enjoyed getting to see the swim coach and it was big for us to get turf for baseball (for example).

“That last year was COVID and we were dealing with financial things that were impossible. There’s no revenue coming in, but money going out. It really squeezed the maintenance people in the programs and young coaches just getting their start – how do you cut their salaries? There were also social justice issues where you want to support the kids, the players and coaches, but there’s people on the other side so you’re in a no-win situation.”

Fulmer believed in operating on a four-pillar process based on communication, trust, warmth and intensity. He believes good things are on the horizon for UT, noting that some of it is already coming into the spotlight now.

“I love where we are with (university president) Randy Boyd. I like chancellor (Donde) Plowman, I like Danny White and I like coach (Josh) Huepel. Our spring sports are killing it – I think we’re 11th nationally in the all-sports trophy despite having 19 sports where other schools have 25 or more,” said Fulmer. “For this fall, I think it comes down to a few plays – something a coach doesn’t draw up. We had Peyton make a play, Peerless made plays, now Hendon (Hooker) can make plays.

“It comes down to Florida, Georgia and Alabama – that’s who you have to beat.”

Counting pennies, enjoying life

Fulmer closed his time on the stage with a story about a chance meeting with former Texas A&M coach RC Slocum. After stepping aside at Tennessee in 2008, Fulmer was thinking about getting back on the sidelines. He was even to the point of assembling a staff when he ran into Slocum and he shared some wisdom with Fulmer.

“I saw RC and he tells me that he’s been looking for me and pulls me aside. He gives a server a dollar and asks them to bring back 100 pennies. When they do, he asks me my age – 58. He took 58 pennies off the table. He follows and says, ‘let’s say you get to 85,’ and takes 15 more pennies off the table. He then says, ‘those last five years are probably not going to be great,’ so he takes five more off. By then, I knew where he was going and there weren’t many more pennies on the table,” said Fulmer. “So, if you take anything from this, just remember that it’s really important to count your pennies, but a lot more important to make your pennies count.”

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