A fond Fulmer story

The fact Louisiana-Lafayette has replaced Central Florida on Tennessee's 2007 football schedule probably holds little significance to most people. But it is quite significant to Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer … and to me.

Louisiana-Lafayette, then known as Southwest Louisiana, was the Game 1 foe on Tennessee's 1992 schedule. When Vol head coach Johnny Majors underwent five-bypass heart surgery 11 days before the opener, Fulmer was elevated from offensive coordinator to acting coach.

Fulmer had never been a head man at any level, so this was a new experience. I could relate; I was adapting to a new experience, too … unemployment. After 17 years at The Knoxville Journal, I'd had my life turned upside-down when the newspaper abruptly folded on Dec. 31, 1991. Reduced to free-lance work, I showed up at Fulmer's office 10 days before the ‘92 opener to interview him for Rocky Top Views (forerunner to Rocky Top News).

At the end of the interview, Fulmer asked how my job search was going. I told him the sports editor of The Maryville Daily Times had resigned, and I'd been contacted about filling the post. Fulmer wished me luck, adding: "If there's anything I can do to help, just let me know."

Ten days later, moments after rallying Tennessee from a sluggish start to a 38-3 drubbing of Southwest Louisiana, Fulmer strode into the interview area with a big grin on his face. Then he did something totally unexpected. Spotting me in a cluster of reporters, he stopped and asked, "Did you get that Maryville job?"

"No," I answered. "The sports editor rescinded his resignation and got his job back."

Fulmer frowned, patted me on the shoulder and said, "Hang in there. Things will work out."

Anyone who reads this web site on a regular basis knows I'm no Fulmer apologist. When he struggles, as he did in 2005, I second-guess him, just like everybody else. Still, I'll never forget that fateful evening nearly 14 years ago … when an up-and-coming coach celebrating his first victory took time to offer a few words of encouragement to a down-on-his-luck sports writer.

That was one of the classiest gestures I've ever seen. So, when I assumed the editor's job at Rocky Top Views three years later, my first cover story was on Phillip Fulmer. His advice had proved prophetic. I HAD hung in there; things HAD worked out.

I suspect Fulmer knows how much that simple act of kindness meant to me. I suspect he also knows that, if he loses this year's opener to Cal, I'll be second-guessing him, just like everybody else.

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