Critics are angry he participated in an NCAA investigation that led to sanctions.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 20, 2004
They deride him with nicknames such as "Fat Phil" and "The Great Pumpkin," a reference to his robust appearance inside an orange polyester shirt. They have questioned his ethics, his motives and his integrity.
They have even called him a coward.
And no matter how hard Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer tries to downplay it, no matter how much he denies it's an issue, he can't escape one indisputable fact:
He is arguably the most hated man in Alabama.
Nine months after it was revealed that Fulmer participated in an NCAA investigation that helped bring NCAA sanctions against Alabama, the No. 11 Vols (5-1) and Crimson Tide (5-2) will take the field Saturday for the 91st meeting in the SEC's version of Texas-Oklahoma or Ohio State-Michigan or Army-Navy.
The rivalry dates to the 1930s and was once heated, yet respected. Today, disdain for Fulmer has pushed respect to the back burner for many.
"In Alabama, I don't think there's any question about that (hate for Fulmer)," said Cecil Hurt, sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News. "People in Alabama think Phil Fulmer is a hypocrite. They just don't like him."
The anti-Fulmer sentiment was so strong in July that some suggested the game, which will be held in Knoxville, should be canceled because of the potential for violence in the stands. Those drastic sentiments have calmed down , but the animosity remains.
"There's a segment of Alabama fans for whom it hasn't died down and will never die down," Hurt said. "I think the majority of Alabama fans just want to win on the field, they are not as concerned. ... But there's a segment, and I couldn't put a percentage on it, but there are some who for different reasons will never let go what happened off the field."
In January, a federal court in Tennessee released summaries of three interviews Fulmer participated in with an NCAA investigator in 2000. A former Alabama booster is awaiting criminal trial in Memphis on charges he paid $150,000 to steer a high school prospect to Alabama.
Although other SEC and Big Ten coaches spoke to the NCAA about their suspicions, the attorneys for former Tide coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams turned their primary attention to Fulmer.
Ordinarily, there might be a certain amount of dislike for a coach whose team has won eight of the past nine in a heated rivalry. The off-field events with Fulmer have just exacerbated the problem.
"I'll bet from early in January, when the story first came up that Fulmer had been the so-called secret weapon to the beginning of the football season, this day (Oct. 23) was circled like there was no tomorrow," said Paul Finebaum, a Birmingham radio host. "Lately, it's kind of just, "Okay the game starts at 3:30.' But I think it's still going to be an intense game, and if Mike Shula wins he'll get credit from a lot of people who don't even care about football because he beat Tennessee. Alabama fans just really can't stand Tennessee right now. Most of the animosity is directed toward Fulmer. They just feel like Fulmer brought the (Alabama) program down."
Cottrell and Williams filed a $60-million suit against the NCAA, accusing Fulmer of conspiring with the NCAA to bring down the Crimson Tide program. A defamation of character lawsuit by the family of a former recruit Kenny Smith was dismissed, but the family has vowed to continue trying.
Many Alabama fans can't let the hatred go. In their minds, Fulmer is the primary reason Alabama received NCAA sanction. Some believe the NCAA cut a deal to turn a blind eye to Tennessee's transgressions in return for information on Alabama.
"I've always felt it was a very intense, heated rivalry with great respect between the opponents, but it has turned ugly off the field with the situation at Alabama and the NCAA probation and all of that," said Jimmy Hyams, sports director at WIVK/WNOX radio in Knoxville. "Many of the Alabama fans blame Tennessee and Fulmer, and the truth is five or six SEC coaches turned them (Alabama) in.
"Alabama cheated, got caught and should serve their sentence," Hyams added. "What a lot of folks in Alabama think is that Tennessee is cheating and the NCAA won't sanction them like they should. ... Most of the hatred is Alabama fans toward the Tennessee program. You don't hear as much from Tennessee fans toward Alabama, although I wouldn't say it's a one-way street."
Fulmer was fined $10,000 in July when, on the advice of his attorneys, he refused to attend SEC Media Days after Alabama attorney Tommy Gallion promised to subpoena him for one of the pending lawsuits. Fulmer lashed out at media members who criticized his decision during a teleconference that week, then was bashed by media across the state of Alabama.
Now in his 13th season at Tennessee, Fulmer has received the support of the American Football Coaches Association and the NCAA. "I haven't really spent any time worrying about that," Fulmer said Sunday. ... "We're just working hard to do our job here."
But Hyams believes it has affected him to a certain extent.
"I think he's done a pretty good job of that, but it's hard to totally disregard it because it keeps being brought up," he said. "Kenny Smith's family says they'll continue to pursue the defamation suit. Phillip has done a pretty good job of focusing on the task at hand, but I don't think you can completely disassociate yourself form it."
For his part, Fulmer said he has very fond memories of the Alabama-UT rivalry. Last season, the outcome was decided in five overtimes. Finebaum, a Tennessee alum who lives in Alabama, said he has received death threats and has been warned not to attend. The perception by some in Knoxville is that he has taken Alabama's side.
Fulmer's status with Alabama fans is clear. But that distinction may not be held by Tide fans alone, Finebaum said. He spoke at a Gator Touchdown Club function and told Fulmer jokes.
"You would have thought I was Chris Rock at the Oscars," Finebaum said. "I just kind of tested it out, and they were really into hating Fulmer. I think in a weird way he replaced Spurrier as kind of the Infante Terrible of the SEC."