If Phillip Fulmer laments the way he is now going to leave the University of Tennessee, he has no one but himself to blame for how it ended. Not solely because of his team’s atrocious play this season; in past eras a season so poor might have slid under the table as an aberration. Now, a very public display of futility over the first 10 weeks of the college football season means the end of a coach who won a national championship a decade ago, and it may be even a little bit ironic considering how Johnny Majors was forced out.
Fulmer is now the ultimate proof of how far the current cutthroat mentality has gone in Division I-A, but do not pity him or pine for any sort of Lost Age, as one of the last coaches with a tangible connection to his university beyond simply cashing its checks. Spending more than 40 years on campus as a player, student assistant, assistant coach, and head coach is a remarkble feat; it won’t happen again. But Fulmer’s exit is entirely of his own making, because high expectations thrive in Knoxville, and going 3-5 in your last eight bowl games, never mind the lack of SEC championships, will make the natives restless at any school with major D-IA pull.
Fulmer is the second coach in as many weeks to have to face the obivous humiliation of sitting in a press conference and announcing that he would not return the next season, in a decision clearly not of his choosing. While the circumstances are completely different than those of Ty Willingham at Washington, it is instructive to note just how nasty a trend this is: athletic directors are taking very proud men and essentially debasing them in front of the media, boosters, and thier own players by saying they will coach out a lame-duck season.
And yet, this will continue, because football has become such a big business for public and private universities at the D-IA level; it means more for donations that grow the campus in lean years. The salaries of the football coaches have reflected this mentality of being an investment toward future gains, and when the gains no longer match the contract extensions, a public end is coming. As unfair as it seems, no one can say it was not coming or undeserved.
To paraphrase Hyman Roth, this is the business Phillip Fulmer has chosen. It is interesting to note in Chris Low’s piece for ESPN how the current players reacted angrily, seething about Fulmer being forced out. If anything else, this should be a learning moment for them, because if a long-tenured coach like Fulmer can be forced out, think of how the system will treat you when your usefulness to the program or an NFL team, should you be lucky and good enough to play on Sundays, runs out.