Of all our Super Heroes none better reflects the virtues America holds dear than dear old Superman himself. As a result, we've come to expect a certain behavior from the Man of Steel: we expect him to never turn a blind eye to crime, to always strive to right a wrong, to stand up for truth, justice and the American way.
While we applaud Superman's heroics we don't hold it against him that he hides his identity to assure that justice is done. Maybe it's because in either role of his dual existence we know he is governed by one truth. We understand that it would be difficult to perform his duties without a degree of anonymity. It's doing what's right that matters most in our sense of right and wrong.
So if we are willing to grant the super guy such a generous concession, why wouldn't we be willing to do the same thing for UT coach Phillip Fulmer? After all, what he did by telling NCAA investigators what he knew about particularly egregious wrongdoing taking place in his home state is nothing less than we'd expect from the Krypton kid — whether he was in the guise of Superman or mild-mannered reporter.
There's a reason the NCAA instituted bylaws that allow sources to come forth anonymously in order to voice concerns about possible recruiting violations or share information to that effect. They know college football has to police itself to be effective. They know if such discussions were made public that rabid elements could be ignited to erupt and reprises carried out. They realize passionate fans stuffed into the same stadium is combustible enough without tossing gas on the fire. And nowhere do emotions run higher than in the highly competitive SEC. It's the type of tempest that can easily spin out of control and it's first casualty is usually rationality.
The process that provides protection for witnesses has been circumvented as a part of the aforementioned lawsuit thus damaging a system that is designed to maintain order and the integrity of the game. How eagar will the next person be to provide information to the NCAA in light of Fulmer has had to endure.
Ironically, if any profession is appreciative of protecting a source it should be journalists who are sometimes willing to go to jail before betraying a confidence. Seemingly, reporters would understand the significance of that relationship and why it is necessary. But how many praised Fulmer for coming forward to tell what he knows in a lawful investigation. Instead they chose to criticize him.
Besides, Fulmer didn't seek out NCAA investigators as much as he was sought out for what he might know. It's a fact the most blatant law breaking was taking place in Memphis, where Tennessee would naturally have sources that would pass along info on any prospects the Vols were recruiting. Alabama was the school involved in the majority of violations, although Kentucky was another culprit that was convicted and punished.
Likewise, Tennessee wasn't the only school complaining about what was happening in the Bluff City. If Fulmer wanted to Volunteer information he would have had to stand in a long line. Coaches from Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State voiced the same misgivings and many gave testimony, as did other coaches from the Big Ten. Why isn't there any acrimony for those schools or coaches?
It's interesting to note that while we admire the Super Heroes that we create, we also engender them with a weakness and an arch enemy. In the case of Phillip Fulmer, Alabama is both. The Crimson Tide seem to bring out the best and worst in Tennessee's head coach. His 9-2 record vs. Bama is an example of the former. The self-imposed lost scholarship for prohibited contact with a recruit's father, whose son was wanting to transfer to UT, is a case in point of the latter. Remember, the rivalry's first casualty is rationality. Additionally, the same father who alleged the prohibited contact took place also accused Alabama of illegally recruiting his son. Fulmer's offense was inadvertent, not premeditated. It was a minor technical violation, but two wrongs still don't make a right. He accepted the responsibility for that encounter and UT paid a price.
It's understandable Fulmer has a burning desire to beat Alabama. He grew up in south middle Tennessee town of Winchester and was recruited by Bama legend Bear Bryant. Fulmer would eventually choose Tennessee and play against Bryant's Crimson Tide. He was an assistant coach for the Vols on that October day in 1992 when they ended Alabama's 11-game winning streak vs. UT. He would be there to endure an equally exasperating seven-game losing streak to the Tide that ensued a four-game Tennessee win streak. Fulmer was the man who ended the victory drought vs. Bama as a head coach in 1993. (As most remember that contest ended in a 17-17 tie, but Bama later forfeited the game as it did every victory that season for NCAA violations. Go figure.)
Fulmer is also the man who turned the Tide, leading Tennessee to seven straight wins over Alabama — a feat never equaled by any opponent in Bama's long football history. It was during that seven-year run that many rogue elements in Big Al's herd went on a vengeful rampage looking for any means to strike back. It's no coincidence that the worst of Bama's recruiting offenses occurred in the midst of Tennessee's streak of dominance. Just like it's no surprise that every rock was overturned in an effort to turn the tables on UT after those crimes against fairness were brought to light. That's when the Tee Martin case surfaced and was investigated for a second time without any finding of wrongdoing. (Unless you count the sports reporter from Alabama who lost his job.)
When that didn't work (again) some of that unruly herd turned to a sure thing to harass the man they perceived to be Alabama public enemy No. 1 — they filed a lawsuit alleging Fulmer and the NCAA conspired to "destroy Alabama football." Not that Alabama needs any help, it seems to self-destruct on a routine basis. Example: Does Fulmer have anything to do with Alabama employing four head coaches in three years?
Make no mistake Alabama has a rich football history, but it's a history also liberally tainted by scandal and misdeeds. Nevertheless there are some in the Alabama encampment that believe Bama has an inalienable right to ignore the rules in order to win.
True gridiron glory can only be attained by taking accountability and responsibility. If Tide fans want to blame a head coach for their near-death penalty experience, it should be the one who oversaw the program when the offenses took place. Ultimately, either by error or omission he's the man who is directly responsible.
Although I've compared Fulmer to a Super Hero, I'm not suggesting that he is one. I won't even suggest that he's a hero, but I wouldn't hesitate to describe Phillip Fulmer as a man who when faced with a choice stood up and did the right thing. He certainly deserves better than to be called a "coward" or to have his manhood questioned by newspaper columnists because he decided on the advice of his attorneys not to attend SEC Media Days in Birmingham.
Fulmer was simply deferring to the better part of valor by not walking into a legal ambush set by attorneys out to embarrass him. We expect a head coach to surround himself with good men and to rely on them to do their job. That's what Fulmer did by skipping media days on the advice of his attorneys. Yet he didn't escape the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. His absence caused a media maelstrom that drew even more attention to a matter that deserves none.
If there's a moral to this story perhaps it is this: it's 99 percent of lawyers that give the other 1 percent a bad name. And never let it be said that the truth ever got in the way of a good story — even if comes at the expense of a good man.