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Hero or snitch, Fulmer makes no apologies
07-28-2005, 12:04 AM
HOOVER, Ala. -- It was the last place you'd expect Phil Fulmer to make his entrance Wednesday at the SEC media days.
Through the front door of the Wynfrey Hotel.
For most of the last couple of years (at least) the Tennessee coach has been the most reviled man in this state. He ratted out the beloved Crimson Tide to the NCAA in a celebrated case that landed 'Bama on crippling probation. That's the Alabama version.
Fulmer did his duty as a coach to point out rampant cheating at a rival school. That is his version.
No matter which version you believe, Fulmer ignored threats left on his cell phone during the sordid affair to deliver a message heard 'round the state on Wednesday.
In so many words, it was: Up yours, Alabama.
In an at-times strident personal defense before more than 500 media members in a Wynfrey ballroom, the winningest active I-A coach apologized for, well, nothing.
"Some people may choose to wallow in the stench of cheating for publicity purposes," Fulmer said at the end of the 20-minute Phil-ibuster that one school official said the coach composed himself on Tuesday.
"The only writings that I am looking for (regard) the SEC East and a chance to be part of an SEC Championship Game."
Fulmer was neither a defendant nor a plaintiff in a caustic lawsuit brought by former Alabama assistants Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Moss against the NCAA and recruiting analyst Tom Culpepper. But in many ways he was the centerpiece of the case.
It was largely Fulmer alerting the SEC and the NCAA about cheating going on in Memphis that sparked the NCAA investigation. Court documents showed that Fulmer told the SEC that 'Bama booster Logan Young had cheated in recruiting 13 players, mostly from Tennessee.
Alabama was investigated after it landed Memphis high school defensive lineman Albert Means. The NCAA stated in its report and a jury later agreed that Young paid Means' high school coach $150,000 to steer the player to Alabama.
Young was convicted of racketeering charges and is currently in prison. Alabama also went to jail -- the NCAA kind -- while Fulmer went "free." The court case barely caused a ripple above the Mason-Dixon Line but it was front page news in the Deep South. Essentially the issue came down to a third-grade playground conundrum: Who is worse, the cheater or the snitch who tells the teacher?
"We all fear out-of-control boosters or people getting involved in our programs that prey on kids and their families ..." Fulmer said. "I truly believe that we all have an obligation and responsibility to keep our game clean of these people to the best of our abilities."
Mirrors don't crack when Fulmer looks in them. If the coach can live with himself, then why can't we? Besides, if more coaches were like Fulmer -- who violated the profession's "code of silence" when it comes to cheating -- college athletics would be better off.
But not many coaches have a .799 career winning percentage and the undying devotion of a state. That's quite a platform to speak from as the dean of SEC coaches. Fulmer sashayed into The Wynfrey certainly looking vindicated, if not feeling it. He was escorted by a Knoxville city policeman who had to guard against nothing more than Sharpies held out by autograph seekers.
"I figured he'd hide as much as he could," said Curtis Graham, a 31-year old Tuscaloosa resident and Alabama fan who staked out the lobby for autographs with his young sons. "He went out of his way (to sign).
"You have to give him respect for showing up. He put it behind him for today, which he should have done last year. I think he did the 'man' thing. ... Alabama fans don't forget nothing. I don't like him for what he did, but you've got to admire him for what he did today."
That essentially was to face the wrath of 'Bama, the SEC and anybody else head on. Calling ahead to an official who was leading him into a television interview room, Fulmer chidingly warned him to watch out, "You may get shot."
Or get caught in the crossfire.
In many ways, Fulmer's mere entrance was a landmark event in SEC history. The legal wrangling got so heated that the coach, on advice from attorneys, did not show up for last year's media days. For a coach who makes $2 million a year, the $10,000 fine assessed by the conference office was like having to pay a jaywalking ticket.
The lasting image from last year is that of cameras pointed at a telephone speaker. Out squawked Fulmer's voice as he talked to media about his team from the safety of the Volunteer State.
Which, of course, only made the faces of the Red Elephants that much redder.
They, and others, contend that the coach who turned in 'Bama for cheating looks like he can't keep his own house in order. There have been 20 incidents in the last 16 months involving Tennessee players, ranging from assault to gun charges to failing a drug test.
This offseason has been particularly disturbing:
A freshman linebacker and defensive end have been charged with aggravated assault for breaking the jaw of a student at a fraternity dance on March 4.
After a pickup basketball game on June 12, 6-foot-7, 300-pound defensive tackle Tony McDaniel was charged with aggravated assault. McDaniel allegedly elbowed an opponent in the face.
Both incidents smack of the worst and most cowardly type of street justice: Neither alleged victim saw who hit him. Shadiyah Murphy said he was hit from behind at the frat party. Charges were filed only after Deshaun Goodrich saw on a surveillance tape that, allegedly, McDaniel's elbow wasn't inadvertent.
Seemingly, Tennessee players can't even violate the law honorably.
"I'm glad we haven't had anybody -- knock on wood -- who robbed a bank or murdered somebody," Fulmer said. "How many have you been in a pickup basketball and in an instant we lost it?"
That sounded strangely like a rationalization. Plus, there are a lot of us, coach, who have gotten mad in pickup games and not ended up charged with assault. Fulmer almost went over the edge again when supposedly talking about former player Brandon Johnson. Johnson was charged with felony reckless endangerment after shooting a gun into the air outside of the apartment of teammate Cedric Houston. Johnson was kicked off the team. A judge eventually threw out the charge for lack of evidence.
"How do you keep a kid from -- after you have a huge win like we had over Florida -- he goes out on his balcony and shoots a gun in the air?" Fulmer said.
Perhaps no one is really getting worked up about this in the SEC because it's hard to throw stones from multi-million dollar glass facilities. Georgia and South Carolina, in particular, have had their own share of offseason problems. In this conference it could happen to anyone, at any time. Except Vanderbilt, and they don't really play football anyway, do they?
Plus the main event is Oct. 22 when Fulmer has to really venture into the belly of the beast. Tennessee visits Alabama that day. Forget fines: Fulmer will have to be there.
"There's no winners in all this (stuff)," Fulmer grumbled.
Oh, there's a big one, as long as that .799 winning percentage stays steady.
07-28-2005, 10:23 AM
Keeper of The Game Maxims
Excerpt from story in today's Tennessean:
"Not everyone was impressed. James Smith, an Alabama fan from Scottsboro, Ala., sneered as he talked about Fulmer. Smith was one of only a handful of Crimson Tide fans milling around in the lobby.
'He's a rat. That's what he is,' said Smith, wearing an Alabama shirt and showing off a "Phil is a Rat" business card.
As Fulmer signed autographs for some UT fans, Smith stood in the distance and took a few pictures.
Asked if he took one with Fulmer, Smith huffed: 'I don't want one with him. I took one so I can mash it in the ground. He's a worm.'
Smith then paused and muttered, "I don't want to say what he really is."
--He has a "Phil is a Rat" business card???!!! What a loser . . .