A winding road to success
To follow his dream, Jay Fulmer left it all. Luckily, it followed close behind.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published October 10, 2005
NEW PORT RICHEY - When Jay Fulmer left Kentucky for Florida, he pictured himself awakening in the sunshine, under palm trees, near a beach, teaching physical education and coaching football.
He never imagined living apart from his family for months, communing with retirees, fishing out of a retention pond and watching CBS (and only CBS) inside a 14-foot popup trailer.
"There's been nothing easy from a family standpoint about this," Gulf High's first-year coach said. "But we just really wanted to do it, and we were willing to make whatever sacrifice we had to."
In February, Fulmer, 38, left the only home he has known for warmer weather and to fulfill his desire to coach in one of the country's most football-rich states. His wife, Vickie, and their two children joined him five months later.
The dream was Fulmer's, but an entire circle of people wanted to share it with him. First, both Fulmers took pay cuts and gave up a 3,000-square-foot house in their hometown of Brooks, Ky., to move nearly 900 miles away to a house a little more than half that size. And with them came three assistant coaches, one of whom worked at a supermarket for a while and lives with Fulmer to make ends meet.
All this for the chance to coach Pasco County's most downtrodden program. A team that has had four winning seasons in the last 35 and never has made the playoffs in its 75-year history.
Against all odds, Fulmer seems to be succeeding.
After six games, Gulf (4-2) has doubled its win total from last season (2-7), including a thrilling 29-28 victory over Mitchell in which the Bucs scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion with no time on the clock.
For the first time in years, students are excited and the community is talking about the program. Jerry Young, Gulf's coach from 1978-81, was so moved he returned as an assistant after nine years away from football.
"Right now, it's very positive around here," Young said. "The energy level, it's back."
* * *
Vickie Fulmer liked the idea from the start. The family had vacationed in Indian Rocks Beach for years, and they decided to move to Florida before son Will, 10, and daughter Tori, 6, started middle school.
Moving meant giving up a job Fulmer liked as an offensive coordinator under a longtime friend at Louisville Western High and leaving the five-bedroom house in Brooks for a 1,700-square foot, three-bedroom home in Hudson.
Most of all, it meant being apart for five months.
"Other than the death of my father, this was by far the hardest thing," Vickie Fulmer said. "The most we'd ever been apart before that was two weeks."
To save money, Fulmer and offensive line coach Kenneth Hollar shared a camper at Seven Springs Travel Park. It had two king-size beds, two showers, a refrigerator, toilet and grill. A thin piece of canvas protected them from lightning.
They spent most of their time working. Fulmer teaches in Gulf's Exceptional Student Education program, a job that pays $38,600, not counting his $2,952 coaching supplement. Hollar worked at a supermarket until he was hired as a substitute teacher, making $55 a day.
At the campground they hung out at the pool, watched TV or DVDs (usually Braveheart or Friday Night Lights ) or fished in a catch-and-release pond, where Fulmer caught a 15-pound, 36-inch bass.
"My co-workers would tease me and say, "He's down there with all those young blonds on the beach,"' said Vickie Fulmer, 37. "I said, "I'm not worried about him. He's staying in a senior citizens' campground. If he wants to hang out with 65-, 70-year-old women, I don't care."
While Fulmer put his team through passing drills and offseason workouts, his wife packed, prepared the house to be sold, taxied her children to baseball and T-ball practice and took care of her mother, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
"At nights, we would talk on the cell phones and I could tell she was exhausted, was worn out, was tired of dealing with everything by herself," Fulmer said .
* * *
Fulmer knew he was asking a lot of his assistants to accompany him, so he asked those who could most easily make the move. Co-defensive coordinators Jason Stallard and Mike Rusche were single, but Hollar was a cousin to Vickie Fulmer by marriage and has an 8-year-old son.
"He would go with me, I think, to Alaska," Fulmer said.
All three were on Fulmer's staff during his head-coaching stint at Louisville Moore. Hollar's loyalty was forged in high school, when he played for Fulmer at Frankfort Western Hills and Seneca.
"I wasn't a very well-rounded kid," Hollar said. "He gave me some guidance, took me into his home and gave me a chance to graduate high school and go to college."
Stallard, 25, and Rusche, 25, also played for Fulmer at Seneca.
Stallard, a self-described "Louisville boy," said the opportunity to work in Gulf's dropout prevention program swayed him. Rusche joined the others in what he called "a package deal."
While Stallard and Rusche could pick up and go, Hollar had to live apart from his wife, Emily, and 8-year-old Lane for five months.
Fulmer hoped to bring three other assistants, but found himself short. So he turned to another familiar face to fill out his staff - his wife.
In addition to her job as a physical education teacher at Deer Park Elementary, which pays $39,250, Vickie Fulmer draws a $1,442 supplement as a football assistant.
Her responsibilities resemble those of a "team mom" - she handles physicals, fundraising and laundry, checks her husband's voice mail and brings Popsicles to practice - but she knows her way around an athletic field.
Her two brothers played football, and her phys-ed background allows her to assist the trainer. She had the players' rapt attention when she spoke on the field after a season-opening loss to Wesley Chapel and suggested her husband look to the soccer team for a replacement when the kicker quit.
"If I had to go in and step in for one of the coaches and help coach, I have enough knowledge to go do that from my PE background and my family and athletic background," Vickie Fulmer said. "But I really prefer to be in the bleachers and be part of the fans during the game."
Gulf principal Thomas Imerson said he has no problem with the arrangement.
"I think a coach should be able to pick who he wants as his assistants," Imerson said. "Often times, sports programs don't have the greatest paperwork done. I know she has a lot to do with that, so I feel perfectly comfortable having her on staff to do all of those things." * * *
Fulmer developed a taste for Florida football during a vacation. Rain ruined plans to go to the beach or fish, so he scouted area schools. He stumbled onto Largo High, where coach Rick Rodriguez was putting his players through drills.
"Before I left that day, he was offering me a coaching position," Fulmer said.
The money wasn't quite right, so Fulmer scoured the FHSAA job board. He turned down an offer in Fort Myers before applying at Gulf, where Keith Newton had been fired after a 20-69 record in nine seasons.
Fulmer's energy set him apart from 42 other candidates in the opinion of Imerson, assistant principal Thomas Brochu and athletic director Paul Girardi.
During the process, Fulmer challenged administrators over and over with the same question: "If you play Gulf High School, you've got to be ready for what?"
When no one could answer, Fulmer provided one: "When you play Gulf High School from here on out, you better be able to stop the running game and better come to hit," Fulmer said, "because if you don't, you're going to leave in bad shape."
Parents and players quickly got a taste of Fulmer's enthusiasm. During a phone call to introduce himself, Robin Burge, stepfather of quarterback Alton Voss, said it would be great to see Gulf go 5-5 after a 2-7 season in 2004.
"Not acceptable," Fulmer said, cutting him off.
"I thought, "This guy is a tiger, he is fierce,"' Burge said.
Burge was more impressed when Fulmer started drawing plays on napkins when Burge and Voss met Fulmer and Hollar for dinner. When the restaurant closed, Fulmer used Hollar and Burge to demonstrate the plays in the parking lot.
"It was the first time he ever met Alton," Burge said, "and he started teaching him right then and there."
* * *
Fulmer learned from his father, Ken, an assistant in Kentucky for 28 years. Football was a staple of dinner table conversations, and weekends started with junior high school games on Thursdays, followed by high school on Friday, youth and college games on Saturday and the NFL on Sundays.
Fulmer realized at an early age that he didn't have the talent to play in college, so he started coaching freshmen the summer after he graduated from high school.
"A lot of guys that are high school coaches now played college ball, and I think that gives them advantages in certain ways if you want to coach college ball," Fulmer said. "But I think I got a big, big jump on those guys as far as coaching careers. I'm coaching when I'm 18. ... When I was 26, I was a head coach."
Fulmer has turned around programs before. He led Seneca to its first playoff win in 15 seasons in 1995 and took Moore to consecutive postseason appearances for the first time ever in 2000-01. * * *
Fulmer's staff began making over Gulf's program at the first spring practice. They put players through every hard drill they could think of to separate those willing to work from those who wanted only to preen at pep rallies.
Once they found a nucleus they could work with, the coaches set about the task of changing the losing mind-set that had permeated the program since its last winning season in '93.
Despite their efforts, Gulf looked like the same old team in its 39-0 loss to Wesley Chapel.
Disappointed that his team seemed to have accepted defeat after falling behind 13-0, Fulmer vowed to eliminate "dead weight." Players returned to practice three days later to find two players were gone, including senior Robbie Robinson, who was dismissed for violating team rules.
The game marked a turning point for Gulf, which ripped off consecutive victories over River Ridge, Citrus and Mitchell. After Anthony Jackson's two-point conversion with no time left sealed the win over Mitchell, the Bucs stormed the field and Vickie Fulmer raced into her husband's arms.
A 28-6 loss to Zephyrhills in Gulf's Class 3A, District 8 opener the next week was a reminder that plenty of work remains, but the Bucs bounced back with a 27-7 win over Ridgewood on Friday.
Still, after everything his family and his staff sacrificed to get here, Fulmer is convinced he is home.
He sold his camper, and Hollar's family is living with him until they find a place of their own. Vickie Fulmer's mother and aunt soon will join them in Florida.
And if the beginning is any indicator of the future, the rest of the Gulf community may be developing the kind of faith those close to him already possess.
"We've been together almost 12 years now," Rusche said. "I trust in him and what he does."