Meeting the press in the media center at Neyland Stadium mere hours after accepting the Knoxville Quarterback Club's Robert R. Neyland Award, Fulmer conceded that getting the honor so soon after getting a pink slip concerned him initially.
"The Quarterback Club makes that decision," he said. "I was honored. I actually discussed with them whether the timing was the right thing or not. They assured me it was the right thing."
If the timing created any awkwardness it was only temporary. More than 50,000 fans attending the Orange & White Game gave Fulmer a rousing ovation when he was introduced during pregame ceremonies. It was his first public appearance in Knoxville since coaching his final game last November vs. Kentucky.
"I've been kind of under the radar," Fulmer explained. "You don't want to be interfering but this (Neyland Award) is one of those things that I felt good about doing and I appreciate the Quarterback Club supporting it."
Naturally, the wounds created by the former Vol coach's unceremonious ouster last November are still healing.
"You realize that we all love the university very much but it really can't love you back; it's bricks and mortar," he said. "There's people that make decisions along the way. Sometimes they're the right decisions and sometimes they're the wrong decisions. We're going through getting past all of that."
Fulmer seems to be "getting past all of that" quickly. After acknowledging the support of his family, he thanked the men who elevated him to head coach 17 years ago, former UT President Joe Johnson and former athletics director Doug Dickey. He also praised Vol fans for "the incredible support I received."
Although he has been criticized by the man he replaced, John Majors, Fulmer made a point to praise his predecessor during Saturday afternoon's news conference.
Noting that he is "very humbled to be in the mix of coaches" who have won the Neyland Award, he added: "When you start talking about the likes of the first, Herman Hickman, all the way through the greats – Coach Majors and Coach Dickey, Lloyd Carr, Vince Dooley and on and on – to even be considered for the same kind of award is a tremendous honor."
Making the Neyland Award especially gratifying was the deep respect Fulmer holds for the man whose name it honors.
"I always loved quizzing the older former Vols that spent time around Coach Neyland or played for Coach Neyland," Fulmer recalled. "Obviously, I learned everything I possibly could along the way. I studied what his philosophies were and the dynamics that made him so great....
"When you look at what General Neyland was about, he was an educator probably first and foremost. He was a teacher that used the field as his classroom. He was an innovator, a tactician in the true sense of the word. He was a soldier, a master planner. The guy was unbelievable from the standpoint of how far ahead he was of the game at that time. He was arguably the greatest coach that has coached the game. Getting an award in his name was obviously very humbling."
Fulmer posted a 152-52 record and a 1998 national title prior to being terminated just five months ago. He hopes to be remembered for much more than those accomplishments, however.
"It's not about 150 wins," he said. "It's not about the national championship. It's not about turning the Alabama series into our favor. It's not about any one person, any one accomplishment or any one team. We have a tremendous heritage here at Tennessee and a great tradition that has values that go back to the man whose name is on the trophy. It's spirit that makes Tennessee football great.
"Certainly, the principle that he taught was not just how to win in the fourth quarter but how to win in the game of life. I hope that I was reflective of that as a head football coach here, as well."