Phillip Fulmer coached the Tennessee Volunteers from 1992 – 2008, winning back-to-back SEC championships in ‘97 and ‘98 and the ‘98 National Championship. He trails only Robert Neyland in overall wins with 152. To be as successful as Fulmer took great leadership… and a stellar group to follow him. This made recruiting players critical to assemble a team that won as often as Tennessee during his tenure.
Safety Fred White remembers the day Fulmer visited his home in Griffin, GA, “I’ll never forget when Coach Fulmer came,” said White. “My grandfather had this thing he would do with every coach. He’d walk them through his garden. Most coaches would stop before they got to the garden and my grandfather would keep walking to see if they would walk with him. Coach Fulmer walked through that garden and didn’t miss a step.”
White’s grandfather was impressed. He wanted his grandson to play for someone with Fulmer’s character. And Fulmer didn’t mind a little stroll through a muddy garden if it meant getting White to commit to Tennessee.
Small town or big city, Tennessee native Fulmer looked far and wide to procure the highest quality of players for his squad. What connected him to these young kids, regardless of their upbringing, is a skill he attributed to how he was raised.
“I was raised good by my great parents,” said Fulmer. “And I love coaching. I love seeing young people have a chance to do well. And… it’s exactly where I came from. The little cocoon that we were in. I wanted to do the same thing for our young people that we were able to recruit.”
Coaching the Vols was a life-changing experience for Fulmer. An experience he wanted these young men to have as well.
“In most cases (the recruits) worked out,” recalled Fulmer. “Sometimes it didn’t. We didn’t win every game every time, but we won a lot more than we lost. And we did it as a family.”
To create a family-type atmosphere required the right bodies on the field and a strong support team to assist Fulmer. He said, “Our staff was like family. (We) stayed together for a long time. That was a big, big deal. But we found guys like Fred and guys across the country that had (strong) character and work ethic.”
Like most families, they had their ups and their downs, but they leaned on each other to get through. “Like I said, sometimes (the recruit) didn’t quite work out, but most of the time they did.” Fulmer said. “What led up for us to be successful was our family being together. And when we had tough times, we made them into opportunities.”
Over 25 years later, Fulmer still remembers how dirty his shoes were after trudging through White’s grandfather’s garden. “That mud was pretty deep on those shoes,” Fulmer laughed. “It’s wonderful to have a chance to recruit someone like him… and we got him.”