JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is returning to college football to help restart the program at East Tennessee State.
Fulmer, 62, will serve as a consultant and special assistant to athletic director Richard Sander as East Tennessee State relaunches a football program it had shut down for financial reasons in 2003. The recent College Football Hall of Fame inductee doesn't expect to coach the new team, which could begin playing at the Football Championship Subdivision level as soon as 2015.
"I never say never on anything, (but) it's not likely," Fulmer said Tuesday after a news conference announcing East Tennessee State's plans to bring back football. "Nobody expects that, that I've talked to within the administration. I was really clear and frank, and they were grateful for that. That wasn't the place in life that I wanted to be. It's a great opportunity for somebody to come in and make their own legacy."
Fulmer said the idea that he might coach East Tennessee State came up when university officials first told him the school might bring back football. Sander has indicated he would like to have a coach in place by mid-May.
"When they approached me about being the coach, it was very flattering, but I'm just at a different stage in life where I'm enjoying my children and my grandchildren and I'm enjoying the business that I'm in with some partners I'm dedicated to as well," Fulmer said. "However I can help in this process, I will. I'm thrilled they're talking about doing it the right way."
Fulmer coached Tennessee to a 1998 national title, posted a career record of 152-52 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year. He coached three games for Tennessee on an interim basis in 1992, took over the program in 1993 and remained in place until getting fired in 2008.
He faces a different type of challenge at East Tennessee State.
"Phil will kind of fill the role of ‘football expert,'" Sander said. "He'll help in everything from hiring a coach to helping us identify architectural firms that we need to build facilities. He's run a total football program, so we're going to listen to him in every phase."
East Tennessee State had an 80-year football tradition before shutting its program. A bid to revive the program during the 2006-07 school year failed when students voted down a $200 fee increase.
The decision to restart football came after a $125-per-semester student fee increase was approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents last week and by East Tennessee State's student government association in January.
"I always thought (the return of football) would happen," said Brock Pittman, an offensive lineman on East Tennessee State's 2003 team who attended Tuesday's news conference. "There's never been a doubt in my mind. I just didn't know when. I'm just happy it's here. You couldn't ask for a better person and a better football mind than Coach Fulmer. He knows how a program should be run. He's proved that. They did a really good job getting him on board."
East Tennessee State president Brian Noland worked on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission when the school dropped football and supported the decision at the time.
"But this is a different time, and we have the opportunity to build on the work that's been done in the past and to move forward and do this the right way." Noland said.
Noland said approval of the student fee increase makes a major difference. The fee is expected to generate about $2.5 million annually.
School officials still must choose a coach, decide on a site location for a future stadium and work toward finding a conference. East Tennessee State's athletic teams currently belong to the Atlantic Sun, which doesn't compete in football, though Atlantic Sun member Jacksonville plays football in the Pioneer League. Stetson and Mercer, two more Atlantic Sun members starting football programs this year, will also compete in the Pioneer League.
The Atlantic Sun issued a statement Tuesday saying "we look forward to working with East Tennessee State and the A Sun membership as a whole in fully developing the opportunities for maximum competitive opportunity."
Noland said the university also would have to add about three new women's sports to go along with football in order to meet Title IX requirements. As they announced plans to bring back football, school officials also started a kickoff fund asking alumni, fans and former players to donate $250 to receive priority toward future season tickets.
"They're not necessarily going to be Virginia Tech or Tennessee in three years," Fulmer said. "Nobody should expect that. But we can be a viable program in four or five years and make it exciting for the students, make it exciting for the community and make a difference in this university."