Although he still looks younger than he did during his final season coaching at Tennessee in 2008, youth twinkles in Phillip Fulmer’s eyes when he discusses a potential return to the sideline.
“I’ve always said I would coach again if the right opportunity presented itself,” Fulmer said Thursday while in town at the Holiday Inn to speak at a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser. “I would coach again, but it would have to be a real unique situation.”
East Tennessee State would qualify as unique. The Buccaneers football program was discontinued in 2003, clumsily considered for reinstatement in 2007 by the same president who’d killed it, and is now seemingly destined for a return under new energetic president Dr. Brian Noland.
Fulmer smiled when the notion of him coaching in Johnson City was mentioned, though it was something less than dismissive.
“We’ll see,” Fulmer said. “I would certainly be willing to help any way that I can as they look at whatever is out there.”
The Hall of Fame coach seemed up to snuff on the speculative ETSU football chatter.
“I think any time a young person has the opportunity to compete on the collegiate level in sports — I think it’s a good thing,” Fulmer said. “I’m really anxious to watch the progression of this. I was really sad when they dropped football. I think it serves a great purpose in this community ... the scholarships, the interest in the school that is generated — not only just during football season, but also bringing students from different parts of the country into East Tennessee State. Yeah, I look forward to seeing if they are really serious about moving forward.”
Fulmer could’ve gotten ETSU defensive back Gerald Sensabaugh to transfer for his final two seasons. One rumor at the time in 2003 was that Fulmer had too much respect for ETSU coach Paul Hamilton to pluck players from his roster, but Fulmer smiled Thursday while suggesting the Vols’ staff just missed on Sensabaugh, who’s gone on to a lengthy NFL career.
“I would like to think, you know, that we were that classy,” Fulmer said. “But it was a scholarship issue. I don’t remember exactly. …
“We would’ve loved to have had Gerald. Paul and I were friends, too. So it just didn’t work out. I’m glad to see him doing so well. He went to North Carolina, right? We probably should’ve took him.”
Fulmer saw Sensabaugh and his Dallas Cowboys teammate Jason Witten play in Atlanta this season when Witten broke Michael Irvin’s team record for receptions. Witten went on to break the NFL’s single-season receptions record for tight ends.
“I had a chance to go to Atlanta the night he broke the ... Cowboys’ record against Atlanta,” Fulmer said. “He’s had a phenomenal career. Jason was actually really mad at me when I moved him from defensive end to tight end, and he’s not so mad at me anymore.”
Fulmer most certainly has digested the anger he felt after his ouster at Tennessee in 2008. But with three coaches having been hired since, it’s obvious he rates UT dropping him up there with how many regard ETSU dropping football.
“I don’t think we would be in the position that we have been in the last three years, you know, if they hadn’t made the change,” he said.
Fulmer has spoken with new UT coach Butch Jones.
“I’m very hopeful that … Butch can get it turned around,” Fulmer said. “I’ve met with him a couple of hours. A sharp guy, you know, and obviously has great energy.
“The difficulty is internal management of what he has to do, and then also the recruiting. So the proof will be in the pudding. I hope he does great, and any way I can help him I will.”
Fulmer hasn’t spoken lately with Peyton Manning, whose Denver Broncos suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Ravens.
“Peyton, after he loses, is not real good to talk,” Fulmer said. “So we’ve texted back and forth a little bit. You know, he’ll get over it.”
Manning threw an interception in overtime that helped lead to the loss, but it wouldn’t have gotten to that point if Denver’s secondary hadn’t choked while allowing a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones in the final minute of regulation.
Fulmer cringed while picturing Flacco’s fling flying high and far through the arctic air in Denver.
“Oh, that was the worst play in the history of defense backs, you know,” Fulmer said. “That’s a bad way to lose a game.”
Fulmer also coached Denver’s Britton Colquitt and Robert Ayers at UT.
There was consolation. Baltimore long snapper Morgan Cox also played for Fulmer.
“I communicate with Morgan quite a bit,” Fulmer said. “I’m proud of him. Here’s a guy that walked on to the program – tall and skinny and really was gonna have difficulty playing a position. But he worked so hard from the physical standpoint –and he was always smart and tough – and snapped great for us. And now he’s playing in the Super Bowl. How great a story is that?”
Fulmer, 62, went 152-52 (74 percent) in 17 seasons (1992-2008) at Tennessee. He works in Knoxville as a partner with Northshore Management and BVP Capital Management. And he hopes this visit to Johnson City will inspire many to invest in the Boys & Girls Club.
“The Boys & Girls Club, I’ve been involved with for 30 years in one way or another,” Fulmer said. “I had a lot of players that came through my program that were with the Boys & Girls Club. I know the impact it has on young people – the boys and girls. I’ve seen their faces when they get off the buses or they come into room and they get to go to the lab or they go play basketball. We had a great reading program … through Tennessee athletics that worked with our Boys & Girls Club.”