Senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster suggested that the veteran coach was forced to resign, a move Foster described as “not very stand-up of Tennessee.”
In a hastily-called news conference inside Neyland Stadium, Foster cited the growth several teammates who have “come from nothing” experienced under the outgoing head man’s guidance.
“It’s much more than a win/loss thing,” Foster said, subsequently noting that Fulmer “worked his butt off – from a student to a GA (grad assistant) to assistant coach to coordinator to head coach….
“That’s not a way for him to go out. They should let him go out on his own terms. That’s how the rest of my teammates feel, and this coaching staff.”
After assuming the Vol reins on a full-time basis in 1993, Fulmer guided Tennessee to a 45-5 record from 1995-1998, capped by a national title in ’98. The program slipped noticeably in recent years, however, going 5-6 in 2005 and starting this season 3-6 (1-5 SEC).
Foster believes the perseverance and determination Fulmer has exhibited in such difficult circumstances – on the practice field and on the recruiting trail – is the ultimate testament to his character.
“You’re talking about a man who, with the season we’ve had, still has a top-five recruiting class,” Foster noted, an unmistakable edge in his voice. “You want to talk about winning and leadership and a foundation? He just left the room.”
News of Fulmer’s resignation – effective at season’s end – hit sophomore safety Eric Berry hard, as well.
“I feel like I just lost one of my ribs or my kidneys,” he said. “I feel like I lost a family member.”
Even on his saddest day as a Vol, Fulmer had to find some comfort in that last comment. The coach has prided himself on maintaining a “family atmosphere” in his program. In fact, it was the division of the UT family, especially the fan base, that Fulmer said prompted his decision to step down as head man.
There are few men tougher than the former Vol offensive lineman but Fulmer struggled to fight back tears as he concluded his resignation speech.
“It’s not about just your name on a plaque somewhere,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “It’s more about being in the trenches and fighting out.”
Ultimately, an increasingly apathetic fan base proved to be one trench Fulmer could not fight out of. As a result, Tennessee finds itself looking for a new head coach.
And 85 scholarship players find themselves waiting for a new father figure.