KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer has said from the time he took over that his No. 1 priority is to turn around the slumping football program.
That hasn’t happened just yet. But while the football program is still trying to find its footing, Tennessee’s overall athletic department is prospering under Fulmer.
In Fulmer’s first full school year as athletic director, Tennessee is on the verge of its first top-30 finish in the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings since 2010-11.
“I’m enjoying it,” Fulmer said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “I enjoy coming to work. I enjoy the people I work with. I enjoy what I do. Some days are better than others, obviously.”
Fulmer was hired in December 2017 to rescue a football coaching search that had gone awry. He responded a week later by hiring Jeremy Pruitt, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator at the time.
Tennessee went 5-7 in Pruitt’s debut season after going 4-8 the year before his arrival. Although Fulmer won’t specify exactly what would constitute reasonable expectations for the football team this fall, he believes coach Jeremy Pruitt is headed in the right direction as he enters his second year.
“The first day of spring practice was like night and day” from last year, Fulmer said. “Everyone knew what to do. Just doing drills was so much better. I do expect we’ll make improvement. We have to stay healthy.”
Fulmer, 68, had an eventful 2018-19 year during which he conducted one basketball coaching search and nearly had to do another.
After a season in which Tennessee held the No. 1 ranking for nearly a month and reached a regional semifinal , men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes nearly left for UCLA. Barnes received a raise that will pay him $26 million over the next five seasons, but he told reporters he probably would have departed if buyout negotiations with UCLA hadn’t hit a snag.
“Rick’s a very honest, forthcoming guy,” Fulmer said. “As I watched his team practice… he couldn’t be more energized about the young people he has coming into the program. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Fulmer fired women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick after the Lady Vols lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and finished 19-13, the first time since 1975-76 they had fallen short of 20 wins. Fulmer replaced Warlick with former Missouri State coach Kellie Harper , who played on three straight Tennessee national championship teams from 1996-98.
Warlick had been an assistant coach on each of Tennessee’s eight national championship teams, and she’s a former player whose jersey hangs from the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.
“That one was no fun,” Fulmer said. “I deeply respect Holly. I deeply respect where our Lady Vols program has come from and what all it was. We need to get back to that. It just was almost one of those sets of circumstances. We weren’t making progress enough (for a) multitude of reasons. We’re really happy with Kellie and what she’s brought.”
Tennessee has received breakthrough performances from a number of teams this year.
The Volunteers reached the NCAA Tournament in baseball for the first time since 2005, reached the NCAA women’s soccer quarterfinals for the first time ever and earned their first NCAA bid in women’s volleyball since 2012.
Tennessee is currently 26th in the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings — up from 35th in 2017-18 and 46th in 2016-17 — and ranks seventh out of 14 SEC schools.
“I think we should be in the top 25 or so year in and year out,” Fulmer said.
There also are off-field issues to address.
Fulmer will be working with a new chancellor — Donde Plowman takes over next week — and the AD is encouraged by his initial conversations with her. Fulmer believes the initial stages of a Neyland Stadium renovation will begin in the next six months, though he concedes the entire project won’t be completed in time for the facility’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.
Tennessee athletics posted a budget deficit of nearly $6.5 million in the last fiscal year thanks in part to buyouts owed to former football coach Butch Jones and ex-athletic director John Currie . Fulmer anticipates a better financial report this year.
“We don’t expect to have a deficit going forward,” Fulmer said. “Hopefully as football gets healthy, we can start building our reserve back.”