DESTIN, Fla. — Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer sat down with the News Sentinel last week at the SEC spring meetings for an exclusive interview to discuss a variety of Vols and NCAA athletics topics.
Fulmer has been Tennessee’s AD for more than 18 months.
Here’s what he had to say during an interview that has been edited for brevity.
What’s the latest on the Neyland Stadium renovation project? What has happened since your last update in November?
“A lot of conversation. A lot of really productive meetings as we look at what we really want to do and can do. Still discussion around the Speech and Audiology Department, (which is housed in South Stadium Hall). We want to be good neighbors and good partners with campus, the timeliness of that. We’re continuing to progress.”
Do you have an update for when construction might start?
“Just all of that I’ve just said. We’re looking at it. I’m not going to tie myself to a date at this point. I don’t have to, and we don’t have all the information or all the answers yet.”
But the money is there?
College football attendance is something on a lot of programs’ radar. At Tennessee, what are some ways to address that and try to be proactive on that issue?
“As you said, everybody nationally is having issues with attendance. The fan experience side of it is something that everybody is working to address. Quite honestly, the size of stadiums is a big discussion point. Scheduling is a big part of that. Conference discussions have been, I think, very productive as to what does the future look like with home-and-home games? How long will we continue on this path in the SEC of playing lower-division teams? Everybody is looking at those things. The alcohol part of it. The Wi-Fi part of it. The different ways to be creative within the stadium – standing-room only and beer gardens.
“There’s all kinds of discussions to make the fan experience better. Even increasing the perimeter of the stadium in some ways, not only for security but also for fan experience. Get people tailgating within sight of the stadium.”
Do you see alcohol sales in general seating areas being something Tennessee could explore? (SEC presidents and chancellors voted on Friday to allow individual schools to decide whether to sell alcohol in general seating areas.)
“We already are exploring it, and two schools in our state (Memphis and Middle Tennessee State) are already serving alcohol at games. To what degree and how (it’s implemented), that’s strictly to be determined.”
The Vol Pass is new this year. It offers a season-ticket-like experience. Why was that something Tennessee wanted to do?
“For the (attendance) reasons we just discussed. It worked well in basketball. I give (senior associate AD for strategic initiatives) Janeen Lalik all the credit for that. We need people in the stadium, and this is a chance for them to afford to be able to do that.”
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks with reporters at the SEC spring meetings.
Blake Toppmeyer, USA TODAY Network – Tennessee
Year 1 of the transfer portal is in the books. Is that system working? Does it need to be improved?
“People have always transferred. This has made it much more public because you put your name out there. I don’t think it’s been a bad thing at all. It’s probably a really good thing for an athlete that maybe wants to transfer down or get a fresh start or those kinds of things.
“It’s a little bit too easy, in my mind. The negative side of it: Does it encourage young people to fight through a tough time that we’ve all in athletics been taught to do all of our life? But, generally, I think it’s been good.”
With the transfer waiver process, do you feel like it’s clear enough?
“No. The waiver process probably needs to be improved because if you’re going to grant 80% of them anyway, why do you really have it? In some sense, it’s creating people to make reasons (to seek a waiver) if I want to transfer.”
Is that the bigger issue than the transfer portal itself, is getting clarity on the waiver process?
“There was a lot of discussion here about the clarity of it. Maybe you don’t even have a waiver. Maybe you go and you’re ineligible for a year. That’s the price you pay for transferring. I don’t know. It’s been a benefit to us a bit, to have some guys that come in that can play right away, particularly the grad students.”
The name, image and likeness topic has come up recently. I know Tennessee has someone, Don Bruce, on that NCAA working group. What is feasible there, and do you have something you’d like to see happen?
“Don Bruce is our representative, our faculty rep. He’s one of three out of this conference that they’re working on that. I’m not familiar enough with it to really speak to it yet. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.”
You mentioned scheduling home-and-homes. Looking into the future in scheduling, there’s not any neutral site games on the schedule. Is that something that you think will be on schedules in years to come, or would you like to see this movement to be more toward home-and-home series?
“I think there can be both, actually. We have a couple (marquee home-and-home) games (scheduled) – Oklahoma and Nebraska. I enjoyed as a coach playing the UCLAs, the Notre Dames, Boston College, Southern Cal. I think it does wonders for your recruiting. Now, it’s better when you win all those games, or most of them. I like those home-and-home series, particularly for us, because we recruit in so many places.
“For the same reason, you would look at, to me – and Jeremy (Pruitt) feels the same way – you would look at the neutral site games as recruiting opportunities, as well. They’re a national stage at the beginning of the year. Particularly if they’re in an area that you spend time recruiting, we’re not going to close the door to it at all. We had conversations (during the spring meetings) with people. We are a good brand, and we want to stay at the forefront of those games, but not just play one to play one. I don’t want to take a home game away from Knoxville if I can help it. To me, that’s the priority.
“Not that we won’t ever (play neutral site games), but it’s got to be worth our time and effort financially and also from a recruiting standpoint to do that.”
You’ve hired the football coach. You’ve hired the women’s basketball coach. And you were part of retaining the men’s basketball coach. You’ve hired a couple of other coaches, as well. At this point, do you think you have your thumbprint on the athletics department, particularly with your impact in the revenue-generating sports?
“I really hadn’t thought of it, but, yeah, I guess so. My whole thing when I came in was my four pillars because I knew what it looked like when I was the coach here – when it was really, really good. That was great communication and relationships on campus with the board and the president and the chancellor and the athletic director and the coaches all being aligned. We are closer to that than I can remember since the mid-2000s.
“You have communication. You have trust. You have people that care about each other – warmth. And then you go work as hard as you can to be successful and with great intensity. We are moving along in that way very well.
“It’s not the hires, necessarily. It’s the fact that we’re working together much, much better.”
What’s your experience with the new chancellor, Donde Plowman?
“A little bit of interaction. I’m on the chancellor’s cabinet, so we have a place in the interview process. We had a dinner. We spent some time. We texted a little bit about a couple of things here. All the people around her give her really high marks as a communicator, as a person who works well with people and cares. I’m really looking forward (to working with her).
“I’ve enjoyed (interim chancellor) Wayne (Davis) unbelievable. He’s ready to do his own thing. This is a really important time for us, for our campus.”
Year 2 for you here as an athletics director. How are you different now from this time a year ago – or is there much change?
“I’m a little more comfortable with what the routine is, what’s expected and those kind of things. I was never really uncomfortable with any of the scenarios we were faced with. Still learning about the interworkings of campus. We have worked to build relationships with faculty and faculty senate and obviously our donor base and move the needle from an accountability standpoint with our coaches.
“I think it’s clear that we want to be in the championship mix (in) all of our sports. And if we’re not – and we’re certainly not always going to be; it’s impossible – but if we’re not, what can we do to help you get there? What do you need? What do you want? I think we’ve done fine there. My team around me, our senior staff, I think we know each other better. I know them better, how to count on them, what to look forward to and that kind of thing. How can I make that better? That’s one of the things I’ve got to continue to look at, is how can we get better so we can support our athletes and coaches better.”
Jeremy Pruitt is going into Year 2 as coach. What kind of growth have you seen in him from being a first-year coach to a second-year coach?
“I almost look at this, honestly, as Jeremy’s first year – or first half year. That first (stretch after he was hired) was a blur. Finish the national championship. Try to recruit – mixed results from that. Get through a little bit of the offseason program. Get to spring practice. Nobody knew anybody or what positions should anybody play. It wasn’t nearly as productive as it was this second year.
“The offseason was so much better because the kids knew what was expected of them. Spring practice was like night and day.
“I’ve seen Jeremy grow. He’s still very involved in all phases, but he’s allocated responsibilities and holding people accountable very well. I was super impressed with his game-day management. That’s probably the harder (part of the job) because everything is instantaneous. You can tell he’s got a really good background of handling situations, making decisions quick and those kind of things.
“We’re still growing. We’re fortunate that we have a really good give-and-take relationship. I think it’s been good.”
Do you have a sense for how much better this team can be?
“I expect us to be better, certainly. And he expects to be better. This program, in my time around it, has never been at this place. I mean, in three out of the (last) five years, we had nobody drafted. At Tennessee? Are you kidding?
“So, it’s getting people in place and developing the young men that are here to compete at the highest level in college football, and that’s in this conference. We have made significant strides in that direction.
“So, what does that relate to in games, wins? I do believe that we’ll be better. Would I love to sit here and say, ‘We’re going to win 10 or 11.’ Absolutely. I’d love to say that, but that’s up to everything falling right and kids coming through that are young and some upperclassmen continuing to improve and develop.”
What are your initial impressions of Kellie Harper and the job she’s doing in the early going?
“I’m so excited about Kellie. She knocked it out in the interview process, and it’s just gotten better since she’s been here. As a matter of fact, (she’s) giddy even to be the coach. She’s living her dream, and I know how that feels.”
How powerful of a motivator can that be? It seems personal for her.
“It is personal. It is absolutely personal. It can be a great motivator. It can be a weight if you’re not careful. She just can’t wait to get to the court and get to her girls and start coaching them. I don’t think there’s going to be any scenarios that are going to intimidate her about this conference. This conference is tough in all sports, and I don’t see any blink in her.
“When I was coaching, some of my players used to play over in HPER Building, the P.E. building. Kellie would come over there, and they would come back and say she’s better. She would beat them all up. She’s tough. I think it’s going to be really fun to watch her grow.”
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Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.