Amidst the trophies, game balls and personal mementos that make the office of Phillip Fulmer a veritable Tennessee football museum, a poem rests on the desk of the Volunteers' veteran football coach.
It is Rudyard Kipling's "If," and it takes reading only the first stanza to understand the relevance of poetry in the plush office of a gritty college football coach, a former offensive lineman who built his reputation as a tireless recruiter and worker.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise: -- from Rudyard Kipling's "If"
In a candid, exclusive conversation with VolQuest.com, Tennessee's longtime leader, a man who has spent 35 years at UT including the last 29 as first an assistant coach, offensive coordinator and head coach since late-1992, discusses the Vols' 1-3 start, the quarterback derby and his coaching future, among other topics.
Q: Among other coaches, we specifically have heard both you and Tommy Tuberville mention being two or three plays or a couple field goals away from very different records or seasons. How fine is the line between winning and losing, and how difficult is it to get players to understand this?
Phillip Fulmer: Well, I think you've got to make that point to the team. You talk about it all the time, particularly when you're playing in the Southeastern Conference. You can look at it any way you want to, and I certainly share the frustrations that we haven't been successful this season to this point as we would like to be. But the fact is, we're two fumbles or two field goals away from being 3-1 instead of 1-3, and the mood's probably a lot different around here. But the reality is that we're not, and we've got to work to get better.
Q: How staggering is it that among the most visible and damaging mistakes this season are several basic, fundamental plays that we've all seen the team execute countless times in practices and scrimmages?
PF: It's frustrating. This has been a good practice team, a team that executes in practice. But you've got to make those plays in the games. You've got to be better prepared. And what I mean is better prepared for the moment. The preparation for the games has been good. You've got to better prepare yourself and have a better focus for those moments as they arise during games.
Q: Aside from the mistakes that have clouded the season, what do you like about this team, offensively and defensively?
PF: I like the spirit of this team. They've gone back to work with a determined attitude on the practice field, and that's how I have to judge it. We had a big game at home (against Florida), and one that we had worked really hard to prepare for and it got away from us because of the mistakes in the kicking game, basically, and not getting it done down on the goal line. They bounced back and played their rears off the next week. Two top 15 schools, both have been in the top 10 and top 5, and we played Auburn very physically. I like that spirit of this football team, and I like what I see on the practice field. Going out there and working to get better and knowing how to practice. But we've got to make the execution transfer to the game.
Q: There is a belief that you've been much more animated this season on the sideline. Some have suggested that maybe this job isn't as quote "fun" for you as it was. Is it that, or is that simply the style of coaching this team requires? Or is too much being made of your sideline demeanor?
PF: Well, I don't know what's been made of it. I haven't read or kept up with that. I'm doing everything I possibly can from early in the morning until late at night, from the practice field or whatever, and are coaches are as well, I don't mean it's just me. We're all working together to get our team to where it needs to be. We're going to get there. We've just got to get there really fast.
Q: Much has been made of the perceived talent gap for Tennessee vs. other SEC teams such as Florida, Georgia, LSU, and even Alabama and Auburn. Do you agree with that sentiment, and if so, why do you think this has occurred?
PF: No, I don't accept that. If we were 3-1 or 4-0, or it wouldn't be a question. We're sitting here, like I told you, two fumbles or two field goals away from being that.
Q: Do you point to last year's SEC Championship game against eventual national champion LSU, a team loaded with talent, as further proof that Tennessee still has elite athletes?
PF: This league is very, very close, period. Yes, I would point to last year's SEC Championship (game). Look at the guys that we've recruited, and then who's recruited them as well. We've signed a number of those guys. But it comes down to a couple of special players along the way. Offensively, I think we have that at tailback. We have that at other places on our team. Some of it's youthful yet, but I wouldn't trade Gerald Jones for anybody in the league, I don't think. I don't think that's the case. Florida's got (Tim) Tebow and (Percy) Harvin and a lot of good players. Everybody's got their own.
Q: What did you learn from your team's similar starts in both 1994 and 2000, and even a year ago, that helps you right now and that you can apply right now to this team?
PF: We're fighters, or we wouldn't be in this profession. Or we certainly wouldn't last in it, not as long as we've lasted in this profession. You draw on the experiences that you've had and the tough times that you've had. That would be true in anything in life. Ever since I can remember, people have said, 'You can't do this. You can't do that.' I don't buy that. I think what the mind can conceive, you can achieve. And the big thing is to get everybody into what we're doing.
Q: Is there any doubt in your mind that this team is capable of a similar sort of turnaround that you engineered during those aforementioned seasons?
PF: I'm very hopeful. In each of those other years, we didn't win every game after a tough start, but we had certainly reason to be proud of what we accomplished and certainly hope for the future. Any coach that's had longevity has had their difficult times. That just comes with the territory. It could be because of injuries, all kinds of different things. Scheduling can have a lot to do with everything, every year. It could be a lot of reasons.
Q: You referenced the future. How does a start like this have an impact on recruiting?
PF: Well, it's not the start, it's the finish that's going to matter. We're off to a heck of a good recruiting start, and we've got a lot of people interested in our program. We just had an underclassmen, probably the best player in that state, who's committed to us. I can't say who it is because of rules, but he heard me after the Florida game talk to the prospects, and he and his family are excited about the character in the program. Those things are positive. We've got a couple of underclassmen committed, I'm talking about sophomores and juniors. It's not just seniors.
Q: This is a new time for several members of your offensive staff, just being on this stage, and I imagine they lean on you during this time, but who do you lean on when it's a tough start like this that you obviously didn't foresee coming?
PF: You're in it together, so you lean on each other. I have friends that are out there that I trust and believe in, and I have conversations with them. But most of the time you have to fight through it yourself and with the people that are in the battle with you.
Q: What are the difficulties of a midseason quarterback situation like you have right now, not just on the field but what are the difficulties of just managing that situation?
PF: I mean, it's part of it whether it's the left tackle or the safety or the middle linebacker or whatever. Unfortunately that position gets a lot of scrutiny and everything, and he has the ball in his hand on every play, practically, and he's going to make a difference in the game. You know, you're looking for guys that can make those plays along the way. And we've made some nice plays. But we've practiced actually better than we've performed in the games. You've got to take the practice to the games.
Q: You've given 30-plus years of your life to Tennessee, and a couple of weeks ago on your coach's radio show, you had some people call in and ask you to resign or to step down. How troubling is that? What's your reaction to that?
PF: That's people in this generation that are just interested in having the best for Tennessee. That's emotion, so to speak. I'm glad to be at a place feels strongly about winning and everything. But just look at the record, that's all I can tell you. We've done it before, and we'll do it again. I almost wanted to say, not just no, but 'Hell no!' I'm not going to do anything like that.
Q: Last thing here. When we talked before the season in a question-and-answer format, you said, "John, I want to coach another six to eight years, and who knows beyond that." Is that still the belief with you right now?
PF: Sure, sure. I don't know if I said six or eight, or eight or 10. But yeah.
Q: Is there any scenario in your mind that doesn't include you as Tennessee's head coach next year?
PF: No, I don't see me doing anything else but being the head coach at the University of Tennessee.