VOL. 132 | NO. 130 | Friday, June 30, 2017
Paying Fulmer $100K A Deal for UT Athletics
By David Climer
What does Phillip Fulmer’s hiring as special adviser to University of Tennessee president Joe DiPietro have to do with Vols football coach Butch Jones?
If Jones continues to win enough games while avoiding issues that reflect poorly on the school, he’ll continue to be UT’s coach. If not, he’ll be jettisoned. Either way, there’s nothing Fulmer can do about it.
Let’s take it for what it’s worth: Fulmer has accepted a part-time job that will pay him $100,000 plus a non-accountable $30,000 expense allowance per year to do things he was already doing, like bouncing around the state as a goodwill ambassador for the university he loves.
Nice work if you can get it.
About the expense account: Fulmer won’t have to file multiple forms that itemize how that $2,500-a-month stipend is spent.
He’s lucky. In the 38 years I worked at The Tennessean, the way these things were handled was subject to great change.
I once bought drinks for the bar during a trip to Chicago (it’s a long story), and it sailed right through accounting without a second glance. Another time, I had an expense account sent back to me because I didn’t have a receipt for a $1.25 cup of coffee. Sometimes the bean counters demanded to know if they were pintos or limas.
Where Fulmer is concerned, this is money well spent.
When Fulmer was given little more than a courtesy interview and skipped over in the athletics director search, it didn’t sit well with his friends and some former players. With noses out of joint, several suggested they might no longer make contributions to the university because of what was perceived as a slight of Fulmer.
Do the math. If paying Fulmer $100,000 a year results in keeping cash flowing from well-heeled donors, it’s a good investment.
Compare this role to the one Steve Spurrier accepted at Florida. When Spurrier retired from coaching at South Carolina, he was invited back to the place where he starred as a player and excelled as a coach. His title: ambassador and consultant for the Florida Gators Athletics Department.
In contrast, Fulmer works for the UT president, not the athletics director. He answers to DiPietro, not John Currie. And that’s by design.
This is an attempt to keep the peace and, perhaps, nurture goodwill within the UT family down the road. Face it: Things have become pretty fractured over the last decade. Sometimes the university can’t function because of all the dysfunction.
Jimmy Cheek, the former UT Knoxville chancellor, had a major credibility issue. There is a power struggle on the board of trustees, which lacks vision and direction. I don’t know many people outside his inner circle who could pick DiPietro out of a police lineup, and he’s been the UT system president since 2011.
Andy Holt he ain’t.
The athletics department has issues of its own. For all the good things Dave Hart did as athletics director in terms of righting the financial ship, he dropped the ball on other matters.
The Lady Vols fiasco was an unnecessary fight. Across the board, the performances of the teams have slumped. UT is no longer competing for SEC championships, much less for national titles.
Does hiring Fulmer as an adviser fix everything? Of course not. But given the current state of affairs, it doesn’t hurt.
There is no question that Fulmer was (and to a degree, still is) bitter about his firing as football coach midway through the 2008 season.
How could he not be? For one thing, it was the 10th anniversary of his crowning accomplishment, the 1998 national championship.
On top of that, if you’ve ever been told by your superiors that your services are no longer required, especially after you’ve poured your heart and soul into a job for so many years, you’d be bitter, too.
But Fulmer was wise to keep his feelings largely to himself and to a tight circle of close friends and associates. That way, he kept the door open to returning to UT in some capacity when the time was right.
Many initially thought the time was right for him to become athletics director when Hart’s contract was not renewed.
I never felt that would be a good move. The days of former football coaches returning to run a multi-million-dollar sports program are long gone. Even so, Fulmer had considerable support among some key UT movers/shakers.
But when Beverly Davenport arrived as UT Knoxville chancellor, it quickly became clear that neither Fulmer nor David Blackburn, the other perceived front-runner, was getting the job. Davenport wanted someone with experience at a Power Five conference. She hired John Currie.
And despite speculation to the contrary, Fulmer understood. He might not have liked the way things were handled, but he got it.
“I went through the proper channels and appreciated the support I received internally and from the alumni and fans, but it was made clear to me from the very beginning that I did not fit the criteria,” he says.
This is where Currie comes in. He was associate athletics director under Mike Hamilton when Fulmer was fired in 2008.
It is unclear how much input Currie had in the decision, but it is fair to say that one of his jobs at the time was to make the case for Fulmer’s ouster to boosters and others. And he was good at that job.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Accordingly, don’t expect the Fulmers and the Curries to go on vacation together. But the two can play nice, especially since Fulmer is working for DiPietro, not Currie.
All of which brings us back to Butch Jones. He has nurtured a relationship with Fulmer, who is on record as saying he believes Jones has the Vols on the right track.
But what if Jones has a so-so season and it’s a close call on whether he should be fired or not. Where would Fulmer come down on that decision?
I suspect that as a former coach who still believes he did not get the benefit of the doubt, Fulmer would side with Jones.
But Fulmer is an adviser to the university president, not the athletics director. It’s not his call. That would be John Currie’s decision.
David Climer can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.