As Tennessee’s most highly regarded brass meets with the NCAA this week to determine the Vols’ fate, there is only one surefire way to end any possibility of severe sanctions. Phillip Fulmer could take the blame for Tennessee football.
That isn’t to say that Fulmer is guilty of any of the many malfeasances that occurred under former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt. However, Fulmer was the man in charge when Pruitt went rogue with alleged cash payments to various prospects. Fulmer chose him. Fulmer is the only person who could simply accept blame and watch the whole thing wash away.
After a championship run as head coach of Tennessee football, Fulmer raised his hand to take over the Vols’ athletic department, first as advisor then athletic director, in 2017 when Tennessee football was at a historic low. Those were bad times. Tennessee, which was led by athletic director John Currie, was torn apart as it tried to hire a coach to replace Butch Jones. Fulmer chose Pruitt. That was regretful. And it could still impact the Vols’ future even though the whole debacle occurred over two years ago.
The results from this latest hearing and the entire NCAA investigation could be dire. If that wasn’t the case, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey wouldn’t have been in attendance. The Vols are trying to stave off a postseason ban, which seems unlikely. However, recruiting travel limitations and scholarship restrictions are still very much in play, despite what the Vols have self imposed.
It’s worth noting that Fulmer has been a part of the proceedings this week even though he didn’t have to be. Fulmer is retired. He could tell the NCAA and UT to kick rocks, that he’s busy with his beekeeping. However, that would just make Tennessee look bad. Fulmer doesn’t want to do that. Well, anymore then he already has.
Fulmer was not only involved in hiring Pruitt. Fulmer was also overseeing him so close that he was once cited for an NCAA violation for coaching the Vols’ offensive linemen. That was a bad sign of things to come. That was also a sign that Fulmer was involved with the football program more than just an average athletic director.
It’s hard to believe that Fulmer knew nothing about the alleged NCAA violations under Pruitt. Even if that’s the case, a supervisor should know as much. Ignorance can be a fireable offense.
Fulmer could make the entire NCAA issue go away if he said he was aware – or even complicit – of the many alleged violations, even if he wasn’t. Why should Fulmer care if he catches some flack? He is retired following a Hall of Fame career. He’s done coaching and (hopefully) being an administrator. Call it “falling on the sword” or “taking one for the team” if you’d like. Whatever the moniker, Fulmer taking some – or all – of the blame wouldn’t affect his legacy other than a blip on his Wikipedia page. As for the truth? When has that ever mattered to the SEC?
Tennessee made the decision to pay Fulmer a buyout when he “retired” in January 2021 following Pruitt’s firing. It was worth roughly $450,000. That arrangement looks worse and worse as time goes on. However, that payment plan could placate Fulmer if he feels that taking the public blame is just too much. After all, he still receives a check every month for $37,500 and will until the end of this year. That’s not a bad consolation prize.
Fulmer and the Vols are faced off against a very motivated foe. Pruitt wants to coach again in college. That makes sense. He’s known as a strong recruiter with ties throughout the south. He was considered a serious candidate for the Alabama defensive coordinator position before it was filled. It’s clear that no one is going to hand him a position worthy of his resume if he has a show-cause penalty in tow, which is likely to be the case.
Pruitt coached in the NFL for the New York Giants last season. That kind of job might not be available for Pruitt much longer considering his expertise is in college football and coaches are scrambling for NFL vacancies now that NIL and the transfer portal have become the new face of college football. If Pruitt doesn’t get what he wants out of this investigation, you can be assured he will gladly turn over more evidence to the NCAA in order to hurt UT. In other words, this seemingly never-ending nightmare could keep getting worse for the Vols. Fulmer could nip that in the bud.
It’s easy to say that Tennessee football won’t get in trouble with the NCAA just because Pruitt’s violations are now just a part of doing business. Yes, players can get paid, but that doesn’t clear things up for Pruitt, Tennessee and the NCAA, which beefed up its enforcement staff last year and seems to have something to prove after being deemed powerless for years.
This is a different NCAA than the one that got punked by LSU and North Carolina. At least one would think so. The Tigers and Tar Heels avoided severe sanctions by not being bullied by the NCAA. That could work for the Vols, but it seems risky nowadays. Moreover, the NCAA has always been unpredictable, so why risk it?
Tennessee could sweeten the pot for Fulmer. How about building a statue to commemorate his tenure and, particularly, the 1998 national championship team that he headed up? Let everything clear up and celebrate Fulmer as he should be, which is a top-flight head coach and not an athletic director. That shouldn’t be celebrated at all. In fact, it should be forgotten as soon as possible. Fulmer could make that happen.
There is no legacy at stake for Fulmer. He’ll be remembered as one of the best coaches of his time and a person who truly gave their all for Tennessee. However, Tennessee football gave plenty to Fulmer as well. It’s time to give some back.