Tennessee Football: Phillip Fulmer Finally Returns—Good Move, Butch Jones

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

Oct 20, 2012; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers former head coach Phillip Fulmer waves to the crowd after he was inducted into the college football hall of fame prior to the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide  at Neyland Stadium. Alabama won by a score of 44 to 13. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Since he arrived on campus last December, Butch Jones has done almost everything right off the field in rebuilding Tennessee's football program.

From repairing dilapidated recruiting relationships in the wake of Derek Dooley's tenure to fostering goodwill to former UT players—detailed here by Sports Illustrated's Zac Ellis—to embracing Tennessee's rich traditions, Jones has done a lot to unite a fractured fan base.

Jones again made the right call this week when he extended an invitation to Hall of Fame former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer to attend his first practice since being dismissed in 2008, according to NBC Sports' John Taylor.

Fulmer accepted and even spoke to the 2013 team at Jones' request.

"It was a little emotional, being the first time back," Fulmer said in a statement released by UT. "I'm glad to be here. As I told them, any way I can help."

Having Fulmer back around the program is a big deal to Jones and UT. Fulmer won 152 games and the 1998 BCS National Championship in his 17 years as the Vols' coach before his somewhat messy divorce from the program in November of 2008.

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The Vols haven't been in the national or even SEC picture since Fulmer's departure, and neither Lane Kiffin nor Dooley ever went out of his way to reach out to the legendary coach.

Oct 20, 2012; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers former head coach Phillip Fulmer waves to the crowd as he is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame prior to the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ji
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Now, enough time has passed for the rawness of Fulmer's dismissal to heal. His return to campus and his involvement in practice is huge for a program trying to re-learn how to win and return to the lofty heights it experienced under Fulmer.

What Jones preaches to his players about the importance of the University of Tennessee and what it means to be a Vol isn't lost on Fulmer. Embracing the past the way Jones has can do nothing but positively affect the future.

Say what you want about Fulmer, his rise to fame at UT and the fall from prominence that the Vols endured throughout his last few years. But he knows how to win, his record speaks for itself and there are few people alive who care about Tennessee as much as him.

And for all the "losing" Fulmer did that got him fired, the Vols went 39-24 and claimed at least a share of three SEC East titles during his last five years in Knoxville, according to that NBC Sports story. Since then, UT is 25-29.

Jones is aiming to change that losing cycle, and Fulmer noted that he can see the passion the new UT coach has for the program.

"Butch certainly has brought a good spirit to the team, to the practice field," Fulmer said. "It's obvious he cares about Tennessee."

That was a sentiment few felt about Kiffin and Dooley.

During Kiffin's one season at UT in 2009, he tore down UT traditions and even placed pictures of former Southern Cal players Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart—players he'd coached with the Trojans—in the football complex.

Dooley made it difficult for any former players to attend practice and games, and really alienated himself from the alumni. When he started losing games, there weren't a lot of people on his side around Knoxville.

Jan 2, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tennessee former head coach Phillip Fulmer was one of the former players and coaches honored as part of the newest class of College Football Hall of Fame inductees by the National Football Foundation before the start of

Jones isn't making the same mistakes.

He already has met with UT faculty, organized get-togethers with former players and extended invitations for any "Vols for Life" to come watch practice or games. Now, he has reached back into Tennessee's past and reconnected with the last man who led UT to glory.

It's a long, frustrating road back to the foreground of the SEC race, but Jones is leading many players who probably can't remember the last time UT was relevant. Fulmer's presence can help them realize the Vols aren't that far removed from being in the championship picture.

Everything Jones has done thus far at UT has been predicated on rebuilding the football program back to national relevance "brick by brick." But he isn't losing sight that the foundation is already there, and it was built by Fulmer and the great coaches before him.

Noted Fulmer:

I like the fact that he's preaching to the kids that we're not trying to build a tradition, we're trying to get one back. I had the opportunity to speak to the kids and tried to reiterate a little bit of that and what they represent, the great players and things that have been here that have been so really special to this place.

Fulmer's presence can help bridge that gap between a rich past and a hopeful future.


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