Surreal photo ops were par for the course on Monday at the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Golf Classic at the Blackthorn Club.
Dan Marino and Peyton Manning shots cropped up. Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl and his successor, current UT coach Cuonzo Martin, were sitting side by side.
And one impromptu moment — when Jason Witten spoke with Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer — brought 1999 into focus.
Witten was a one-man wrecking crew and sure-handed tight end for his grandfather Dave Rider’s Elizabethton Cyclones, and the Hokies, who had signed Witten’s older brother Shawn the previous year, were close to another big catch with Jason.
“Shawn was a great kid for us,” Beamer said. “We would’ve liked to got the second one – Jason – but it didn’t work out that way. I think it kind of got down that way, and being right here in Tennessee, he felt like that was the best place for him.”
Oddly enough, Fulmer first saw potential greatness in Witten, the USA Today Tennessee Player of the Year, after watching him play a substate basketball game at Maryville.
“I went down and watched Jason play basketball when he came to Knoxville,” Fulmer said, “and as soon as I saw that I knew that he was gonna be a really, really special player, whether it was at defensive end or – I eventually thought – at tight end.”
Part of the reason Witten chose Tennessee was because he thought playing defense was his best bet to play professionally. That was easy to understand after watching him make a school-record 450 tackles at Elizabethton. But Steve Spurrier, then at Florida, and programs such as Michigan liked Witten as a tight end. And Witten was still apprehensive when Fulmer mentioned the move to the other side of scrimmage to back up tight end John Finlayson during his freshman season.
“When I moved him from defense to offense he really wouldn’t hardly speak to me for about a week or 10 days,” Fulmer said with a smile. “But now he thinks it was a pretty good move for him. He wanted to play defense. He had that kind of temperament.”
Selecting Tennessee in the border battle was tough on Witten. Some of his family wanted him to move to Blacksburg.
“Obviously, it was a very difficult decision,” Witten said, “and who would’ve thought we would be together 12 years later laughing about it over a golf game? I am thankful for the process and never would’ve been where I am without that experience.”
Some 13 years later Witten’s been to seven Pro Bowls and has become a beloved humanitarian, Beamer’s added four Atlantic Coast Conference titles to the three Big East titles he already possessed and Fulmer’s punched his ticket to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“That is well deserved,” Beamer said. “I tell you, I’ve been in this business a long and he’s been one of the great, great coaches in this business. He did it the right way, just had a lot of success.
“And I’ll say this, there’s not a tremendous amount of great players in the state of Tennessee. I mean, there’s a lot, but not like there is in Alabama, Florida, Texas. And for him to win the way he did, I think, makes a statement about his overall ability recruiting wise and coaching wise.”
Fulmer was a first-ballot selection after going 152-52 at Tennessee, where he won two SEC titles (1997-98) and the 1998 national championship. Fulmer will be inducted during a Dec. 4 ceremony in New York.
“I was real, real, real blessed to have a chance to go in on the first ballot,” the 61-year-old Fulmer said. “I think I’m one of the youngest to have actually gotten in – not the youngest, but one of the youngest. I’m real proud of that and real humbled by it.
“But as I’ve said, it really goes back to a whole bunch of great players and great coaches that were very loyal to me for a long time. And also to an administration while I was there – not at the end, but most of the time – that really, really understood what it took to be successful in the Southeastern Conference.”
Witten, 30, described Fulmer as a “phenomenal coach” who won with class, and the Hall of Fame selection was welcome news.
“I was really excited to see that,” Witten said. “He went about it every day the right way. I’m thankful to have been able to play for him. I’m the player I am today – a large part of it – because of him. Well deserved. Some of those years when he was there were some of the best college football teams in a long time.”
As difficult as rejecting Beamer’s offer was, telling Fulmer he was bypassing his senior season to enter the NFL draft was just as trying for Witten. The move was second-guessed when Witten surprisingly wasn’t taken until the 69th overall pick, but getting on with tight-end friendly coach Bill Parcells and the high-profile Dallas Cowboys couldn’t have been better scripted for the future Hall of Famer.
“Everything has a way of working out good in the end, and Jason’s had a great career and had a great career at Tennessee,” Beamer said. “And Shawn had a great career at Virginia Tech and Shawn’s doing very well in the coaching business (at Elizabethton). That family’s meant a lot to football around here.”
Jason, through his generosity of time and money, has meant a lot the community in general. In fact, considering all that he and Manning have accomplished in numerous communities, you could argue that they’re even more exceptional outside the lines.
“It’s been special,” Fulmer said. “One of the great things about not being in coaching is you’re not worried about the next spring practice or the next recruiting class or the next fall; you have time. And I’ve really enjoyed having the time to reconnect and go to some games. I’ve watched a lot of the guys get to play in pro football and see them on the sidelines before the games. It’s thrilling.
“It’s wonderful to see them do so well. We’ve had so many guys that have gone on and played in the league and made a difference, but not many like Jason and Peyton.”