- Associated Press - Friday, August 24, 2018

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer says his new position didn’t require much in the way of on-the-job training.

Fulmer was hired in December to salvage a football coaching search that had gone awry. Fulmer, a Tennessee alum who coached the Volunteers’ football team to the 1998 national title, understands his No. 1 goal is to make sure the football program becomes competitive again.

Now that he’s had nearly nine months on the job and has watched first-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt at work, Fulmer’s more comfortable than ever in his new role.

“If I was going to Michigan or Texas or East Tennessee State, it probably would be a little more foreign to me,” Fulmer told The Associated Press on Friday. “Here, it’s not been foreign at all.”

Fulmer, who turns 68 on Sept. 1, took an unusual route to the athletic director position as a former Tennessee football coach who had stepped down in 2008.

Although Fulmer understands why schools have generally promoted associate athletic directors rather than selecting former coaches, he believes his coaching background benefits him.

“It got to be a much more business-oriented thing rather than sports-oriented,” Fulmer said. “It got to be who can negotiate the television dollars, who can negotiate the corporate sponsorships.

“You can actually go to school and not even play a sport and become an athletic director as an administrator. I’m not sure how great that is. It helps you if you’ve been on a sideline or you’ve been in a huddle or been in a fourth-and-1 and had to make a decision. It makes a difference, in my opinion, although there are great athletic directors both ways.”

Tennessee selected Fulmer to replace John Currie in December when the school was struggling to land a football coach. Less than a week later, Fulmer hired Pruitt , the former Alabama defensive coordinator .

Currie had reached a deal with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano that fell apart amid a public backlash . Less than a week later, school officials couldn’t track Currie down for several hours as he interviewed Washington State’s Mike Leach.

Fulmer has kept most of Currie’s staff intact.

“When I started this process, I said, ‘Well, I may have to make three or four changes and get my guys in here,’” Fulmer said. “But what I found really quickly is how loyal they are to Tennessee, how professional they are and how we moved forward quickly. They put all those things that were going on behind them, and we all went to work.”

The shake-up instead has occurred outside the athletic department. Beverly Davenport, the chancellor who hired Fulmer, was forced out in May. The move came less than two weeks after the announcement that Fulmer had signed a contract worth about $1 million annually that runs through Dec. 31, 2021.

Fulmer says he’s happy with the leadership in place.

“I don’t see any uncertainty right now,” Fulmer said. “(Interim chancellor) Wayne Davis is incredible, He’s absolutely incredible in solidifying our administration greatly. I know there are things to come with the (next) president being hired and those kinds of things, but I’m confident in our board and confident in our leadership on campus currently.”

Fulmer says he believes Pruitt eventually will lead the football program back to contention. Tennessee went 4-8 last season to set a school record for losses. Fulmer often attends Pruitt’s football practices and likes what he sees from the new coach.

“I’m not there every day, but I’m out there most days just watching,” Fulmer said. “I may watch for two hours. I may watch for 30 minutes.”

Fulmer, a College Football Hall of Famer, says he has developed a solid working relationship with the current coaching staff. Fulmer says he is happy to talk football and share ideas with Pruitt while making sure not to interfere with him.

“Very early on, we said, ‘Look, we’re not going to walk on eggshells,’ ” Fulmer said. “We both want the same thing, and that’s to (have Tennessee) be successful.”

The football program isn’t the only area where Tennessee could improve. Tennessee finished 35th in the 2017-18 Directors’ Cup all-sports standings , up 11 spots from last year but well below where the Vols typically finished in the 1990s and early 2000s. Tennessee was 11th out of 14 SEC schools.

“My goal is to have everybody understand that we should be in the championship mix or nipping at their heels,” Fulmer said. “That’s what we want to do. The only group here that doesn’t have (the necessary) resources right now is baseball. Everybody else is up to par with anybody in this conference in facilities.”


Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee

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