On the afternoon of Sunday, November 2, 2008 Mike Hamilton phones Volunteer Coach Phillip Fulmer on his cell. Hamilton asks Fulmer to meet him in his office at Stokely Athletic Center. The two never meet on Sundays. Fulmer arrives and they talk for an hour sitting across from one another at Hamilton's brown conference table. On the floor of the office sit pictures waiting to be hung commemorating great wins, including the 1998 national championship game, from Volunteer football seasons past. During their conversation, Hamilton lets Fulmer know that he's being fired.
Although, Fulmer is not surprised by Hamilton's decision, he does not take it sitting down. Later, Fulmer will describe how he argued to keep his job. "I said, 'Mike, this is when we hunker down and go to war and fight, you know, if you've lost ten percent of the people coming to the games, they'll come back if you win.' And I felt like I deserved, with the length of time I'd been there and all that I'd accomplished, that I needed a year to get it fixed and then make a decision if it didn't work."
On his drive home after meeting Mike Hamilton, Fulmer reflects upon the change in athletic directors at Tennessee, from his old coach Doug Dickey, who he trusted intimately, to the more business-minded Mike Hamilton, "I liked Coach Dickey being there because I knew what was expected and so on, what he expected of me," Fulmer will say later. "He didn't mind one bit coming over there and having a conversation about football or the team or anything. I don't know that I ever didn't trust Mike ... necessarily. He was just different. Much more corporate, much more. Having not played ever, it would be very difficult for him to understand our world, having been from the development world where you stroke the boosters rather than Coach Dickey being a coach. He (Coach Dickey) understood those problems and how to make a stand and how to be tough, if you needed to be tough."
The news officially breaks on Monday morning. Just short of sixteen years to the day after he received the head-coaching job, Phillip Fulmer's career at Tennessee is over.
Now it is time for Tennessee Volunteer athletic director Mike Hamilton to find his replacement.
The list begins with 30 names. Hamilton has long kept a list of potential replacement football coaches -- an actual physical list of printed names that is fluid and constantly evolving. He edits and revises this list frequently -- the coaching golden boy can have a bad season, a coach can sign a huge contract that takes him off the table, or a coach can go down for rules violations. In a world as cutthroat as college football, a coaching list should never be stale.
Hamilton keeps his list at home, away from prying eyes. He's never known when the list would come in handy but in the wake of Phil Fulmer's firing suddenly the list is his holy grail. And gold, pure gold, for the trove of Tennessee fans who are watching every move, every hint of a move, and every rumored move to divine the name of the next head coach. Hamilton is aware of this obsession and he's going to do his best to avoid reading intimate details about his search in the newspaper.
This is not Hamilton's first big hiring decision -- in 2005 he hired Bruce Pearl, then a basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Hamilton conducted his basketball interviews from a Chicago hotel room. He didn't leave and didn't permit anyone to contact him, to such an extent that the front desk didn't allow a pizza that he'd ordered to be delivered. Bruce Pearl's team, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was in Chicago at the time playing the University of Illinois in the NCAA tournament. Hamilton considered going to watch the game but was afraid of drawing public attention to his interest in Pearl. He emerged from that search with a very successful hire and without very many leaks.
But Hamilton knows this search, for a football coach, will be much more complicated-Hamilton compares hiring a new basketball coach to turning around a motorboat in the river, hiring a new football coach to turning an aircraft carrier. Never before has the University of Tennessee held a national coaching search for its football job, and Tennessee fans and the media who report on Tennessee are already fast on his heels.
At 5:30 AM on Thursday, November 6th, two days before the homecoming game against Wyoming, Hamilton embarks on the first leg of his cloak and dagger scheme. He travels in a different car than his own (reporters have been known to follow the cars of athletic directors) to a Shoney's Restaurant off I-75. There he meets three other members of the athletic department, Gary Wyant, John Currie, and David Blackburn, changes cars, and the four of them take I-75 South en route to Atlanta, Georgia-a major metropolitan area into which they can rapidly disappear.
Hamilton has chosen to drive in a car because he knows that in the age of internet message boards, zealous fans track the plane travel of everyone associated with UT football and eagerly dissect their movements online. Already Volquest (the Rivals UT message board) has reached a fever pitch over the significance of several University of Tennessee plane trips to locations near rumored coaching candidates. But Mike Hamilton would never fly the UT planes, he's aware of the online flight-trackers.
With Neinas already awaiting them, the four men from Tennessee check into a suite with a conference table and beginning at 9 in the morning spend the day pouring over candidate biographies, and discussing pros and cons of each coach on Hamilton's list. They dissect the 30 names on Hamilton's list with the goal of cutting to 10-12 by the end of this first day.
When the group from Tennessee emerges from the hotel room and returns to their car for the trip back north to Knoxville on I-75, they have their list of a dozen names. Now the real nitty gritty commences, the interview process. Over the next three to four days, Neinas will be making telephone calls to the representatives of each of these coaches to gauge their interest in the job and find out whether they would be willing to interview for the Tennessee job.
During this initial trip to Atlanta even Hamilton's wife doesn't know where he is. But this doesn't mean he isn't recognized. At a Pilot gas station in Northern Georgia, the foursome stops to fill up. As he walks through the gas station, Hamilton is stopped by a truck driver, a Vol fan. "Hey, you out getting us a coach yet?" the man asks.
Hamilton laughs nervously, "Not yet," he says.
Two days later Tennessee loses 13-7 to Wyoming. There will be no bowl game.
On the Thursday of the bye week, November 13, Hamilton hits the road again. Once more he meets his trio of search colleagues -- all University of Tennessee athletic department employees -- at a Shoney's. Their first interview is Lane Kiffin -- the former coach of the Oakland Raiders who has previously been offensive coordinator and recruiting director at USC. Kiffin is just 33 years old and two months removed from being fired by Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders. Davis fired Kiffin on September 30, 2008 for violating the terms of his contract, but after watching Davis's crazy press conference, most observers, including Mike Hamilton who has researched the affair, believe that Davis has lost touch with reality and that Kiffin did not violate his contract.
By the time Tennessee interviews him, Hamilton believes that Kiffin has already interviewed with or is a serious head-coaching candidate at Syracuse, Washington, and Clemson. One of Hamilton's associates instructs Kiffin to fly to Atlanta, book a suite with a conference room attached, and wait there until the four Tennessee men arrive for the interview.
That Wednesday night Hamilton speaks with Kiffin for the first time, just to ensure that he's arrived in Atlanta okay. In the meantime, Kiffin has made his first and only error of the interview process. He's sent a FedEx package to Hamilton's home. The package, a collection of articles and notes about him that Kiffin wants Hamilton to see, arrives while Hamilton's wife Beth is hosting a group of women at her house. Hamilton receives a panicked phone call from his wife who manages to hide the package in his home office. Later Hamilton will hear a rumor that FedEx delivered a package from Lane Kiffin to his house. But much to Hamilton's relief the rumor will be shouted down by people who simply find it unbelievable. Who would be so dumb?
On Thursday November 13, Hamilton conducts his first interview for the Tennessee job. The interview is scheduled to last two hours. Instead it lasts four hours. Kiffin regales the group with a detailed recruiting plan for Tennessee, and with news that his father, Monte, the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator, has a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave to coach alongside his son. Hamilton already knows this, having been informed of the clause by Kiffin's agent, Jimmy Sexton, but he's intrigued by the idea of bringing the best NFL defensive coordinator to the SEC.
Kiffin, light brown-haired with a boyish face, and a perpetual smirk hanging on the edges of his lips, is brash, passionate, energetic, and detail-oriented. Kiffin's rise to the top of the coaching ranks has been meteoric. A former college quarterback at Fresno State, Kiffin gave up his senior season to begin work as a student coach. In 1999, he accepted a coaching staff position at Colorado State and then a year later jumped to the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2001 Kiffin moved to USC to join newly hired Trojans coach Pete Carroll as the tight ends coach. Kiffin, a dogged recruiter, rapidly shot up the coaching ladder at USC. First he became a wide-receivers coach, and then, in 2005, he ascended to the offensive coordinator position. Just as importantly, Pete Carroll named Kiffin his recruiting director. Helming an offense led by quarterback Matt Leinart, running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, and wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, Kiffin's offense ran roughshod over college football, averaging 49.1 points per game. The boy wonder, Kiffin, rode this job to the head coaching position of the NFL's Oakland Raiders. On January 23, 2007 Kiffin, just 31 years old, became the youngest coach in the NFL since 1946.
Hamilton is most impressed with Lane Kiffin's proven track record as a recruiter, and his plan to do the same at Tennessee. In 2002, Kiffin helped USC put together the #13 recruiting class in the nation according to Rivals.com. By 2003, USC surged to the #3 class in the nation. Not to be outdone in 2004 USC locked down the # 1 class in the country. With Kiffin taking over recruiting coordinator duties, the Trojans followed their first number one class with the number one rated classes in 2005 and 2006. As if that weren't enough USC's recruits have turned into great NFL players; from 2003-2008, no school in the country has had more first round draft picks than the USC Trojans. At this interview Kiffin convinces Hamilton that he can replicate USC's success in nation-wide recruiting at Tennessee, and that he can put together the best coaching staff in football, including his father, Monte.
Born on Leap Year Day on February 29, 1940, Monte Kiffin is a 68-year old grizzled football veteran. Having worked as a head coach for three years at North Carolina State, Monte has been coaching defensive football since 1966. For the past 25 years Kiffin's been a defensive coach in the NFL and his vaunted Tampa Cover 2 defense, predicated on leaving his safeties deep to keep from getting beat on the big play and leaving the middle of the field to roving big-play linebackers, is one of the most-imitated defensive schemes in NFL history. He's the highest paid defensive coordinator in the NFL under a multi-year contract to Tampa Bay for $2 million a year. And now, thanks to a contractual provision that allows him to leave and coach with his son, Lane Kiffin is telling Mike Hamilton he can bring his dad with him to Knoxville.
All four men leave impressed with Kiffin, but the interview process is just beginning. Early public speculation focuses on North Carolina coach Butch Davis as the leading candidate. Hamilton knows this is not the case but allows the rumor to grow because he believes it serves as a smokescreen to the actual search. The Knoxville News-Sentinel and many other newspapers, internet sites and assorted fan message boards will all breathlessly discuss Davis as the primary target. In reality Hamilton never interviews Davis for the job.
From Thursday, November 13th through Tuesday, November 25th, Hamilton does interview half a dozen other candidates in four major metropolitan areas, including Dallas and Atlanta. Hamilton and colleagues travel via cars or commercial flights though they are careful not to depart from Knoxville. Instead they leave from Nashville and Charlotte for direct flights to their destination cities. Generally the men travel on different flights and always in coach class seats, where Hamilton sits in the aisle and scans passing faces to watch for flickers of recognition. To draw less attention he has switched his regular briefcase (which features a large orange power T) for a plain briefcase. He does the same with his Tennessee luggage. And while he does check bags he keeps his briefcase, with the coaching information, with him at all times. He reads nothing pertaining to the coaching search on the flight lest someone see what his papers say.
When asked which coaches he interviewed for Fulmer's job, Hamilton refuses to give a single name other than Lane Kiffin. But through a variety of other sources, I have pieced together a list that I believe to be accurate. I believe Hamilton met in person with Troy Calhoun of Air Force, Turner Gill of Buffalo, Brian Kelly of Cincinnati, Gary Patterson of TCU, and conducted an interview over the phone with Mike Leach from Texas Tech. Hamilton was also scheduled to meet with Will Muschamp of Texas, but Muschamp signed a coach-in-waiting deal four days before his face-to-face interview with Hamilton. Per sources, Troy Calhoun of Air Force was the number two choice.
In preparation for each of these interviews, the University of Tennessee books hotel rooms for the coaches. Hamilton has no public contact with any man, no walk down the hallway, no elevator ride and certainly no public dinner. But one coach and his wife do stay for dinner with the group. The dinner arrives via room service and is enjoyed in a conference room, where not even a waiter is present.
Hamilton remains most impressed with his first interview, Lane Kiffin. As the search progresses, Hamilton telephones Kiffin: "How quickly can you be in Dallas?" he asks. The next day, on Monday, November 24th, both men arrive in the city. Hamilton telephones Kiffin to check on his arrival and asks him to stop by his room if he gets a chance. Kiffin arrives at Hamilton's room and the two men visit for two and a half hours as the Green Bay Packers-New Orleans Saints Monday night football game plays on television. Kiffin doesn't leave until 1 in the morning.
The next morning, Tuesday November 25th, Kiffin officially interviews a second time for another two and a half hours. By this time Kiffin has put together a list of potential staff members that he believes he could bring with him to Tennessee. Among the names are Coach Ed Orgeron, formerly the head coach at Ole Miss and currently the defensive line coach with the New Orleans Saints, and his father. Hamilton and the interview team are close to being sold on Kiffin as their hire.
A day later, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, ESPN reports that Tennessee has extended an offer to Lane Kiffin. This is inaccurate; the university has not yet offered him the job. Nevertheless two members of the local Knoxville media commence a vigil outside Hamilton's office. When he leaves his office, Hamilton has to promise both reporters that he's going to the bathroom (there isn't one in his office) and not dodging them.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving Hamilton officially extends the offer to Kiffin and Kiffin accepts. As the Saturday morning paper arrives on doorsteps across the wide state of Tennessee for the final game of Phillip Fulmer's coaching career, the smiling face of Lane Kiffin stares up from the front page. The dawn of a new era has arrived in Knoxville.
Five months and eleven days later, Fulmer, wearing a blue sports jacket, khaki pants, and a salmon colored button down shirt, ushers me inside his home office. The walls are blanketed with photographs of Tennessee football players past and present. A large flat-screen television, the only thing other than pictures hanging on the walls, rises above a pool table with an orange-felt finish. Fulmer leads me around the room. "I picked all the pictures on the stairwell," he says. "Up top is a letter that Tom Osborne (Nebraska head football coach until 1998) wrote me after he beat our butt in the Orange Bowl. It was his last game coaching, and he congratulated me on getting there and said I'd get a national championship one day. I got one the next year. It meant a lot." "I don't know him. And I don't know, you know, the guy won five games? I'd won 150."
- Phillip Fulmer
There is not a spare inch of wall space on the stairwell. Next to me
Fulmer looks at the dozens of pictures, a photo of former quarterback Casey Clausen diving for a pylon against Alabama, Fulmer posing with Peyton Manning, Joey Kent, and Leonard Little on the Neyland Stadium turf, the front page of the Knoxville News-Sentinel after the 1998 Florida game, bearing the headline "Vols Do It!", and Fulmer holding the National Championship BCS crystal trophy in 1998. "The rest of the room," he gestures around the downstairs walls, "somebody else, a decorator, did them; some of those I might not have picked."
Asked what his expectations were entering the season, he says, "I think there's no reason that you don't win eight or nine of those ballgames. That's the truth. Auburn's a crappy team that year, we just happened to play crappy. UCLA, I mean we score going in (when Arian Foster fumbled with the Vols leading 14-7) and it may have been 35-7, they'd probably quit or something. Wyoming? I mean that was a joke. My team was drained, it was unbelievably difficult just getting them out there."
Tomorrow on March 10, 2009, Tennessee begins spring football practice with a new coach, Lane Kiffin. I ask Fulmer what he thinks of being replaced by Kiffin. "Well, that's not my place to make a judgment, I don't know him. And I don't know, you know, the guy won five games? I'd won 150." Fulmer laughs, shakes his head, and repeats, "it's not my place."
He continues, "They got a good team coming back, I'll say that. They should be good, schedule's better."
On the day of his hiring Kiffin said he wanted to speak to Fulmer at some point in the future. "At this point, yeah he has reached out to me and I'll sit down with him at some point," says Fulmer. Asked whether he has an opinion of Kiffin's public comments about Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators cheating and other SEC controversies he's stirred up since his hiring, Fulmer abruptly stands and strides across the room, ponderous footfalls echoing on the hardwood floors. For a moment I believe he's leaving, cutting our interview short. The door opens behind me, the bathroom door. "I don't know him, and I don't really care to comment on any of that and I don't know what context it came out of." He pauses at the bathroom door for a moment, contemplates silence then speaks anew, "It's either immaturity at the very least or poor judgment at the very worst."
Since his firing, Fulmer, a regular visitor at all sorts of Vol athletic events during his tenure, has attended only one Tennessee game: Lady Vol basketball coach Pat Summitt's 1,000th win against Georgia in Knoxville's Thompson-Boling Arena. "I took Vicky back to watch Pat's 1000th win and we're in the box and everything's great and all of a sudden they crank up Rocky Top and she gets emotional. Which I understand. It was hard, really hard. And it's still hard on my girls, it's been hard on my friends, a lot of Tennessee people because it was such a surprise."
His eyes tear up at this point, and he pauses to collect himself. He looks down at the hardwood floor in front of him, lightly lifts his feet, an old offensive lineman looking for his best foot placement, and drops them back down to the ground.
"It's tough," he says, choking on the word tough.
On September 5, 2009 Tennessee kicks off against Western Kentucky. For the first time in 16 seasons, Phil Fulmer will not be on the sideline. I ask him if he'll be in the stadium, "No," Fulmer says, "I don't know where I'll be."