The dean of the SEC's head football head coaches, Fulmer made it clear he has no regrets about his actions that helped land the University of Alabama football program on NCAA probation. The University of Tennessee head coach said he wants to make sure there is no cheating on the recruiting front going on in his state and the actions he has taken were for the good of college football.
Fulmer was fined by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for skipping the SEC Media Days last year on the advice of his attorney because of legal proceedings in the state courts in Alabama. Fulmer avoided coming into Alabama to avoid having to get a deposition in a lawsuit involving the University of Alabama's NCAA probation.
"As I have said to everyone as we have gone through the day, I am really glad to be back in Birmingham and representing my school and with my players and looking forward to a really big season," he told sportswriters at the Wynfrey Hotel, just outside of Birmingham. "I really regret that I wasn't able to be here last year and hate all the circumstances that kept me from being here last year. I haven't seen the commissioner yet, but if you see him make sure he knows that I was here because it can be expensive when you don't show up, you know."
"A lot has happened over the last year," the coach added. "We had a good good football team last year, beat Georgia and Florida and Alabama in the same year. That's a really hard thing to do. SEC East champions as we came out of this meeting last year picked third, I think...won our bowl game and a good year recruiting so it was a good year for the Tennessee Volunteers.
"Obviously, there's a lot of interest in the last year that was squirreling all around the trial stuff and a lot of intense media coverage, especially here in Alabama and theatrics that were worthy of Oscars," Fulmer said. "Legal battles that went on and even some threats of harm to some of the people involved and their families, including mine. And I do not take that lightly and I am not well over that yet as far as being angry about that.
"The end results were two things. It was a criminal investigation and a conviction. The college football system of self-governance prevailed, the facts that came through all of that, there was cheating in Memphis, Tennessee, a lot of coaches and others that tried to stop it, federal courts that proved it, consequences were assessed and a few people outside the main-stream of college sports tried to retaliate and lost the ridiculous and absurd conspiracy theories in the courts.
"Several media guys have asked me if I felt vindicated. We all fear, out-of-control boosters or people getting involved in our programs that prey on kids and their families; that are usually the less fortunate people. They usually have their own selfish reasons for doing it and we have seen it as gamblers do it, bad agents or their runners do it to our kids, and bad boosters do it. I truly believe that we all have an obligation and responsibility to keep our game clean of these people to the best of our abilities. I do appreciate and thank the people at the levels of this process that did the right thing and the cheating in Memphis has stopped.
"We have a great game and I respect all of our sister schools and the players and coaches and their loyal fans," Fulmer added. "I have been doing college football, counting my playing days, since the summer of 1968. I have a great love and great passion for the game of college football. I love the fall, especially the fall the games, the stadiums, the preparation, the planning, the camaraderie with the coaches and the players, the great wins, the tough losses, I enjoy the off-season program, spring and summer. Not anything about college football that I don't enjoy, especially the rivalries that we have in this great conference of ours. I love being around great players and celebrating their success, but I love just as much being around the second and third teamers that continue to be a part of the team to find their place on the team.
"With all that said, I understand and appreciate the standards and rules we abide by and the governing bodies we are accountable to," Fulmer added. "I have and will defend my program, my coaches and their families and their livelihoods, our loyal fans, and especially defend my players' rights to have a level field to compete on.
"As we stand here today the court cases are almost done, some people may choose to wallow in the stench of cheating for publicity purposes; the only writings that I am looking for is in the SEC's east and a chance to be a part of an SEC Championship game.
"I appreciate the many that stand besides me and supported me in this, especially my administration. I'd like to talk about our team and then I will take a few questions that you might have and I will answer them the best of my ability if it's a technical legal question obviously I am not an attorney, or if it's about something that's ongoing then I can't really comment on that at this particular time."
Fulmer's team is coming off a season in which it won the SEC East, but lost in the league title game to an Auburn team, which defeated the Vols twice.
"As far as our football team, I think that we can have a very good football team," Fulmer said. "Our schedule is really hard. UAB is a tough football team to open with and then having to go on the road at Florida and LSU, is very difficult. If you look down the rest of it, having to go to Alabama and playing in Notre Dame and Kentucky Memphis, Vanderbilt.
"With the top-heavy schedule that we have it's really important for us and a challenge for us right now because we had a number of surgeries coming out of spring practice and coming out of the season that we report in great shape and great health. We have to be ready early. We don't have time to wait on somebody to get in shape. We don't have time to experiment a whole bunch. We certainly don't have time to waste any days and two days as we get ready for our season.
"A lot of things will center around our quarterbacks, last year at this time I couldn't begin to tell you who our quarterback would have been between the young men that went through spring practice. Those two freshman (Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer) came in last year and just did a great job of inserting a lot of energy and enthusiasm into our football team. And we managed it very well and I think got the very most out of those guys throughout the year. Then when we had the injury, Rick Clausen comes in like the white night and saves the day, led us to the SEC Championship game and also did very well in the bowl game.
"I don't know who our quarterback will be next year at this particular time, but it will be a good one between Erik and Rick," Fulmer says. I think Erik has a lot of the same qualities that Peyton Manning had when he came in as a freshman and sophomore. I am very encouraged about his future.
"Our wide receiver group as a whole should be one of the best in the league. I don't know if we exactly have the premier receivers, the guys like Dante Stallworth that were there, or that sort of thing, but Robert Mitchell and Chris Hannon could be those kinds of guys. As a unit I am really excited about them.
"We have a thousand yard rusher returning in Gerald Riggs," the coach said. "It will be interesting to see if Gerald can carry that load and manage it from a maturity standpoint that he prepares himself well every week. I have seen a lot of growth in Gerald over the last year and a half or so, but when we have been our best we have had two or three guys that have been able to compete and contribute at tailback. I hope that we can find a couple of guys that are youngsters that can come on and do that for us.
Auburn's head coach, Tommy Tuberville, poses with Fulmer before last season's SEC Championship Game won by Auburn.
"Our offensive line, I expect to be as good as we have had at Tennessee. Arron Sears is a great football player. Not a good one; he's a great football player. Rob Smith is a captain as a junior, and that tells you what the rest of the team thinks of him in his ability, his toughness I am excited about him. Cody Douglas needs to be 100 percent well for us at right guard and right tackle Albert Toeaina has improved 100 percent since last year when he came in from junior college and had very little idea about the fundamentals and techniques. I am hopeful that he will be a big time player for us.
"Our center is questionable right now," Fulmer noted. "Richard Gandy hurt his knee playing a pick-up game in the off-season. It is a concern right now whether he will be back for the opening game or the second game or just when he will get back. He's ahead of schedule and we expect him back. If he doesn't make it back. or if he does, David Ligon has done a tremendous job of getting himself ready to participate. He took advantage of all the work that he got in the spring. Right now I will be comfortable with him being our center.
"Our tight end position, we haven't had a tight end really contribute a whole lot for us since Jason Whitten left early to go to pro football and we're still looking for that guy. Chris Brown did a good job when he came in and last year as a true freshman, Brad (Brad Cottam), a kid that has had shoulder problems last year, he's well, expect big things from him. He can really run, hopefully we will get more out of him. We took a punter, Justin Reed, made him into a tight end. He helped some and walk-on Jake Finlayson helped some, but we're not where we need to be right now at that position."
Auburn torched UT's defense last year, but Fulmer is expecting improvement in 2005.
"Our defense last year times played outstanding we really struggled at the end of the year up until the bowl game and played really well in the bowl game," he said. "We overcame some injuries. We were the youngest defense in the conference at beginning of the year. They are all back. I expect big things from them. Parys Haralson is as good a defensive end as there is in the conference. Jesse Mahelona was a defensive tackle and ended up All-American for us. He played really well. Justin Harrell, MVP of the Cotton Bowl, had a great season for us, and the best of the bunch, I think didn't get a lot of credit last year, Turk McBride ,played both end and tackle."
UT lost one of its star players early last year, but thee linebacker is ready to go. "Our three linebackers will all be seniors," he said. "Kevin Simon is back and 100. He could have probably practiced more in the spring than he actually did after being lost for the year in the Florida game, second game last year. Two years ago he led us in tackles and I am expecting a huge year from Kevin. He's one of our leaders on our team and really outstanding football player.
"Omar Gaither filled in for him and made some all conference teams last year played exceptionally well for us and Jason Mitchell is the other senior linebacker that also can run and done some good things. We have got some depth there so I am pretty happy with where we are at linebacker.
"In the secondary we will be I think better than at the beginning of the season than we were at any time last year because we will be more athletic in the secondary, "Fulmer said. "I don't know how smart we are moving Jason Allen from safety to corner. That's kind of a two-fold one; that's what he wanted to play and he chose to come back for his senior year and stay and play and he played there the year before and he will do a great job for us. The second reason is really the biggest reason, that it allows us to be more athletic in the secondary as we move Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart from corners into the safety positions in the spring. That's why I said we will be better. We will be more athletic, that's why. Left corner Jonathan Wade is a guy on our track team, I just think that we need to get a lot more out of him than what we have gotten because I think he's talented enough to be All-SEC or an All-American kind of football player, that's our challenge with him.
"Our kicker is back. James Wilhoit had a really good year last year. You know things are tough when your kicker has surgery in the off-season. He had surgery on his foot as well but he's kicking really well right now. Expect big things from James.
"Our punter, Britton Colquitt, will be a big-time key for us in this process because he is only a freshman, having to go on the road to Florida and LSU very early there. He's going to have to do a great job for us. They all tell me he may be the most talented of the bunch (of the Colquitt family punters)."
It has been a rocky offseason on Rocky Top with football players being arrested and having other problems. Commenting on that, Fulmer said, "We have lost a couple of good players because of that. I think we are working really diligently to try to get those kinds of issues straightened out and not after the fact.
"We have for a long time tried to be proactive to this. We have had a number of things that fortunately, knock on wood, that we hadn't had anything, you know, real, real bad, but enough that it makes you madder than heck because it distracts from all the good things that say that the Jason Allens of the world do.
"Jason Allen worked with boys and girls clubs for four years every summer, been very, very dedicated to that along with a number of other kids that have gone out in the community and done a lot of great things.
"You have 85 kids on scholarship. I'd say most of the coaches have the same kind of thing. You don't have but four, five that you really have to worry about. The other 80 or 79, whatever the right number is, just doing, the good things and great things. It makes you mad when Michael Munoz wins an award, the academic equivalent of the Heisman, and we get on the fourth page of sports and one of the guys go out and screws up and it's on the front page."
Fulmer declined to answer specifics concerning the legal proceedings that came out of the Memphis recruiting scandal that led to probations for the University of Alabama as well as Kentucky and the federal conviction of Tide booster Logan Young.
The veteran coach did add a lighter note to his appearance at media days when asked to comment on the return to the SEC of his old coaching nemesis, Steve Spurrier. When asked what his initial reaction was, Fulmer replied, "Aww, crap!"
Fulmer went on to praise Spurrier, the new South Carolina coach, by saying that anybody who can win the ACC football title at Duke is a heck of a football coach and will be a challenge for other coaches in the SEC East to do deal with this year.