It's after midnight and I'm sitting in front of this computer screen, full of turkey and trying to appreciate the moment.
I know what's coming. But now that it can be counted in hours and not days, it's catching up fast and I don't know how to handle it. It's approaching like Christmas, and likewise it too will be gone in a hurry. And I know that I want to say something and I wish I had more time to say it.
Because I also know that tomorrow afternoon our basketball team will play its first really big game of the season, and after today's win over Siena we're all looking forward to Georgetown even more. And then I know that Saturday will be Kentucky, and we'll watch and feel the emotions all day long.
It's Phillip Fulmer Appreciation Day. But Saturday will turn into Sunday, where Fulmer will chime in one last time on his television show. And then Sunday will turn into Monday.
And Monday, odds seem favorable that we'll have a new head coach.
And Monday will be about the new guy, about his age and his father and how quickly we can all get a certain YouTube video up on our blogs if he brings one particular ex-Ole Miss coach with him. Monday will be December, and since we're not going bowling it'll turn full steam towards recruiting and basketball. December will lead to 2009, which promises the fresh start that we all want.
Which means that in less than 48 hours, Phillip Fulmer won't be our football coach anymore. And in less than 72 hours, we'll have to start talking about something - and someone - else.
Fulmer gets one day on Saturday, and then he's gone. And there won't be any time for fond remembrances or anything else special afterwards, we'll move on with the new guy the way that life and football do each off-season.
So as I sit here and try to figure out how to write about Fulmer for the last time as our head football coach, and as I continue to realize that next time I'll be writing about someone new and a new season with no time left to look back...there's so much to say and so little left to say it in.
I was 11 years old when Johnny Majors had heart surgery. Being from Knoxville the Vols were always my team and thus they always had my support. And when you're a kid, it's different.
I loved Coach Majors simply because he was our coach. When the Vols started 0-6 in 1988, which was really the first year I went to every single home game with my Dad, my grandparents mailed Johnny a card with some words of encouragement and some small bit about how much their grandson loved going to the games. Coach Majors wrote back with a personal note that said "Tell your grandson he's my kind of guy" and a t-shirt. We still have it somewhere.
Phillip Fulmer was just a couple years older than I am now when he started coaching at Tennessee. And it's been an interesting experience to think about someone in their early 30s as the new head coach at Tennessee - I trusted Johnny because I was a kid. I trusted Phil because he earned it. This new kid...
I remember the still-young Fulmer getting praise for calling a screen pass in the 4th quarter in South Bend in 1991. I remember Coach Majors going down and Fulmer's authentic smile on television when he was going to be the man to lead the Vols thru the T as the interim coach.
I remember two spectacularly surprising weekends in September that year, where the Vols first went to Athens and upset Georgia's best team of the 90s, then came home in the downpour and slaughtered Spurrier's Gators. We wouldn't enjoy that pleasure again for six years.
I remember as a child watching the whole Majors/Fulmer saga unfold, still feeling the heartbreak from the three straight losses to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. I trusted Johnny Majors because he was our head coach. And when the mantle was passed to Fulmer, I trusted him for the same reasons.
I became a teenager, then a college student, and finally a man during Fulmer's tenure. As I got older, the blind faith in the head coach faded away (contrary to what you may still believe if you read here regularly). But it wasn't replaced with cynicism - it was replaced with an even deeper trust. Not just because he was our coach. But because he earned it.
Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the table and we go around and say what we're thankful for (except for tonight, because 2/5 of my family are too sick to be thankful right now...gotta love the stomach flu at Thanksgiving).
I remember September of '93, with Heath Shuler. I remember just totally destroying Georgia 38-6, and thinking for the very first time as someone barely old enough to understand, that Tennessee might have something special working. Thanks for that.
Thanks, Phil, for winning a living room in Louisiana later that year. For making the best of Jerry Colquitt's bad situation and turning it into four years of a guy who was so good, more than half of the people in Knoxville blindly followed him to his NFL team instead of staying true to the in-state one.
Thanks for giving John Chavis the job as defensive coordinator, even when he gave up 62 points in his first big game against Florida. Thanks for sticking with him for 13 years, no matter what others might say. The fact that The Chief will go off into some sunset almost totally uncelebrated is perhaps the greatest tragedy of this whole mess. And I'm fully prepared to defend that statement, so bring it on.
Thanks for setting us free from Alabama.
Thanks for October 1995 in Birmingham. Thanks for the next fall in Knoxville and letting all of us who didn't see it with our own eyes the year before enjoy one of the best nights in Neyland Stadium history when Jay Graham went racing down the sideline. Thanks for letting me walk down the concourse at Bryant-Denney Stadium in 1999 with all five fingers of my right hand held high. No matter how things have gone at the end, you leave Bama on the losing end of your reign, definitively.
Thanks for the way you handled yourself when we couldn't beat Florida. For every time you went to the podium and took the blame for a loss, from the Gators in the mid-90s to UCLA this year.
And thanks for finally beating Florida - because once was all it took.
Thanks for the way you recruited and coached up well enough to allow two untested sophomores to carry our offense to a National Championship in 1998, and two true freshmen and an LSU reject to carry us to Atlanta in 2004.
Thanks for keeping our program off probation during a span that many others can't say the same.
Thanks for Orlando in January '96. Tempe in January '99.
Thanks for beating Michigan senseless, because we all know you wanted to.
Thanks for sending Steve Spurrier out of Gainesville with a loss, even if he got to return the favor a little bit this year.
Thanks for that time on the Vol Walk in 1998, before the Florida game, when you walked past me and I said "Coach!", and you turned towards me, and the total seriousness in your eyes both scared the hell out of me, and let me believe that we might actually have a chance against these guys.
Thanks for letting John Ward go out on top.
Thanks for every Sunday morning you sat next to Ward and then Kesling when it was hard because we didn't play well. For every phone call you took on Vol Calls from people who wanted you fired, even when it was justified.
And thanks for last year, when you helped us appreciate each win a little more, and showed us some of that old backs-to-the-wall magic one more time. Thanks for letting me spend five December Saturdays in the Georgia Dome, and for letting me walk out with some new merchandise twice.
Thanks for 1998. For helping my senior year of high school be that much more special. For letting me and my Dad go to all the games together one more year before I went to college and his back betrayed him, and letting us see you come home a winner every single time. For that moment in Tempe when some guy I barely knew grabbed me and told me through tears that he'd been waiting his whole life for this, and that I was only 17 and I'd better appreciate it.
Thanks for making Tennessee good enough that I can lay here at 12:49 AM and write about them, and that enough people care enough about them to read it.
Thanks for giving your all for Tennessee today...even now, when we've decided that your all won't be enough anymore.
This is it.
Nobody loves writing about the last 20 years of Tennessee Football more than me. I incorporate modern era history into almost everything I write about the Vols. Because for me, after suffering through that first year as a kid at 5-6, Tennessee was great just about every single year afterwards. The Vols being great is just about all I know.
This year has been terrible. Next year, we'll wait and see what happens. Maybe it'll get worse, maybe it'll hover in mediocrity, or maybe the new guy will help turn it around.
But no matter what...for me that whole era is now over.
I can't go back and talk about how this reminds me of something from the 90s, or how a defense plays like a Chavis unit of old...not in the same way, not anymore. We're turning the page on Fulmer...but we're also turning the page in Vol history. We've celebrated ten years since our National Championship, and it's been great...but now there will be a disconnect between what happens next and what's come before. Because Phillip Fulmer's fingerprints won't be the dominant image on the next Vol teams.
It's exciting, turning the page. No one believes that what we've seen this season is acceptable, and we've made the change accordingly. And come Monday, we'll all be ready to talk about the new guy and where this thing could go. Hey, I'm ready for tipoff of the Georgetown game right now.
It's a forward moving business and a forward moving life. The now thing leads to the next thing. And we understand that.
And so right now, for one last time, we raise our best to Coach Fulmer. There'll be no more working like heck, no more hand clapping, no more grimacing. A new page is turned as the old chapter ends.
Many of us will be there Saturday. Some can't make it in town but will see him off from their couches. Others have chosen to stay away for their own reasons.
For me, I can't be anywhere else.
I'll be at the Vol Walk for the first time in years. I'll stay 'til the end regardless the score. I have to see him go - it's all I know to do.
And he'll go, and we'll go on. And in a few years, hopefully when things are going well, they can release a Best of Johnny Majors DVD, so they can then release a Best of Phillip Fulmer edition. And time heals.
I'm excited about the future. I'm still upset this season turned out as inexplicably bad as it did.
But right now, I'm thankful for our head coach. Phillip Fulmer deserves our thanks.
For all the wins. For all the players. For all the memories.
And for doing it the right way. Fulmer himself would probably tell you he has a greater desire to be remembered as a man than as a football coach. Phillip Fulmer the coach and Phillip Fulmer the man did it right at the University of Tennessee. When the Alabama fans say otherwise...it's because they're Alabama fans.
Fulmer took us to the promised land and brought home the prize as his greatest on-field accomplishment. There are more great wins and great memories for the Vols under Fulmer's tenure than most programs see in a lifetime. The 50 Best Vol Games feature we did here in 2006 and update annually bears witness to that. Fulmer was a winner, and we loved every single one of them.
But most importantly, both on and off the field, Phillip Fulmer was someone for this university, its fans, and the people of Tennessee to be proud of.
And he still is. And he always will be.
Thanks, Phil...for making it great to be a Tennessee Vol.