KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | An emotional Phillip Fulmer, with his wife at his side and tearful, angry players surrounding him, announced Monday that he had accepted Tennessee's decision that this will be his last season as the Volunteers coach.
Fulmer, 58, is being forced out after 17 years as Tennessee's coach, a run that included a national championship. He has a 150-51 record with the Vols, including the 1998 NCAA title — the school's first since 1951.
"This is not an easy day for me or my family. It is not a day that I sought or accepted easily," said Fulmer, his voice cracking as he fought back tears standing next to wife, Vicky.
"Our Tennessee family is united in its goals, but divided in the right path to get there. I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided. That is why I accept the university's decision that this will be my last season as Tennessee's football coach."
The Vols fell on hard times this season and were just 3-6, including 1-5 in the SEC after a 27-6 loss at South Carolina on Saturday.
"Many fans have been supportive, some have been very angry. All of us are disappointed," Fulmer said about this season."
Fulmer signed a new seven-year contract in the summer which was worth $2.4 million this season. He will receive $6 million as a buyout of the contract, payable over a 48-month period.
He is the nation's third-winningest active coach among coaches with 10 years of experience, trailing only Florida's State's Bobby Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Dubbed the dean of the SEC coaches for his long tenure, Fulmer's teams won two conference titles and seven divisional crowns. But that wasn't enough to save his job.
"It's a tough part of the profession," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
Athletic director Mike Hamilton said Fulmer was asked to stay with the program in an administrative capacity, but Fulmer said he has not decided what he will do next.
Hamilton said he and Fulmer spent a lot of time in recent weeks discussing the direction of the program, and the decision was made to make an announcement with three games remaining to give fans a chance to honor and celebrate the coach.
Tennessee will formally celebrate Fulmer's career on Nov. 29 when the Vols host Kentucky.
"Our discussions leading to coach Fulmer's announcement today did not come without great consternation or thought, but it is in my opinion the best solution given our current circumstances," Hamilton said.
Many visibly upset Tennessee players crowded the small media room for the announcement and gave Fulmer a round of applause as he entered.
"This is bigger than winning or losing or (having) a solid foundation," senior offensive tackle and captain Ramon Foster said. "He just stepped down as far as the end of this year. From the team, we're not really satisfied with that move.
"Tennessee is a family, and we take care of each other. That right there wasn't very standup of Tennessee."
Fulmer met with the players an hour before Monday's public announcement to tell them of the decision, though many had already learned of it from media reports.
Sophomore safety Eric Berry said he expects the Vols to play their last three games against Wyoming, Vanderbilt and Kentucky with a lot of emotion.
"He doesn't want us pointing any fingers right now. He just wants us to stick together and try to finish the season out well," Berry said.
Fulmer earned his first three wins filling in for Johnny Majors while he recovered from surgery. Tennessee officially named Fulmer head coach on Nov. 29, 1992, after forcing out Majors.
News of the announcement traveled quickly around the country, and coaches and former players offered their support.
"This is sad day for the Tennessee family," Indianapolis Colts quarterback and former Tennessee standout Peyton Manning said. "His legacy at Tennessee will be that he built men and won championships. He will always be my coach."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he had much respect for Fulmer and what he has done at Tennessee.
"I can't say enough about what he's done there. From a professional standpoint you hate to see any one of your colleagues go through this kind of thing," he said. "This part of the business is not a good part of the business."
Quotes on Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer
"Our Tennessee family is united in its goals but divided in the right path to get there. I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided. That is why I accept the university's decision that this will be my last season as Tennessee's football coach," Phillip Fulmer said Monday in announcing he was accepting the decision for him to step down after this season.
"Obviously this is a very personal situation that happened today. Phillip Fulmer is one of the best friends I have in this world. I am saddened to see the end of a great era in college football. Not only is Phillip a great person, he is the best football coach I've ever been associated with. His work ethic, attention to detail and recruiting efforts were lessons for all of us who were fortunate enough to work alongside him. I wish Phillip and his family the best as they move forward," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who spent eight years as Fulmer's offensive coordinator.
"It is a shame, because they are losing more than a football coach. He has helped a lot of players and people, including myself, to be the successes they are today. I guess in the grand scheme, winning is important. I hope the coach they do find will be as good a person and mentor as Coach Fulmer and who will have the well-being of the players in mind, and not just winning games and advancing his own career," said Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who was a first-round draft pick in 2002 after playing for Fulmer.
"Phillip Fulmer is the reason that I chose to come to Tennessee, and it was one of the greatest decisions I ever made," two-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning said. "I will always be indebted to him for the impact he has made on my life and my football career. I know I speak for hundreds of players when I say it was an honor to have played for him at UT. I am fortunate to have played four years for one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football."
"Coach Fulmer and I are really good friends. I have a lot of respect for him as a mentor from working with him," said Trooper Taylor, a former assistant head coach for Fulmer at Tennessee now in his first year as a co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. "I know how he feels about that program. ...
"He also has taught me too that it is a business, and he knows better than anybody that it does come down to wins and losses because he's been there 17 years and had two losing seasons. You'd be hard-pressed to find that anywhere in the country.
"It's a tough part of the profession," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
"I was sorry to hear the news about Phil," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "My thoughts and prayers are with him, his staff and their families."
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Phillip Fulmer and what he's done at Tennessee, full body of work, 16 years, won a national championship. I can't say enough about what he's done there. From a professional standpoint, you hate to see any one of your colleagues go through this kind of thing," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
"This part of the business is not a good part of the business."
"The only thing I can say is that he's had a great tenure at Tennessee," LSU coach Les Miles said. "He's done a number of great things. In my opinion, he's had a very distinguished coaching career. I hope it's something that he wanted to have happen. I hope it was something that he enjoyed. There will be great memories of his time there. I suspect that he'll do a lot with his time from this point forward, and certainly, those were his calls."
"I'm kind of shocked and surprised," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "I think it'd be hard-pressed to find a guy who's done more for his alma mater than that.
"Coach Fulmer's always had an outstanding team over there at Tennessee. ... It's hard to maintain every year the expectations that maybe that program has, but he's been very consistent at that. He's had wonderful years since I've been playing against him except for one. I think it's just been an oustanding year."
"I've spent time with Coach over the years, and obviously I'm a big fan of their program in watching what they've done," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "I know it's very, very difficult. He'll be OK. He's done a terrific job. He's a really, really good coach and a good person. I've enjoyed my time with him."