Phillip Fulmer is in his third year as the University of Tennessee's athletics director.

Tennessee, king of the buyout, is paying Phillip Fulmer $1.4 million to fire him

Life is good if you’re Phillip Fulmer.

I mean, it’s not $900,000-per-year good. But it’s $450,000-per-year good. And that’s pretty good when you’re sitting around doing nothing.

It was revealed Wednesday that the University of Tennessee and Fulmer are nearing an agreement on Fulmer’s “separation package” as he prepares to retire from his post as the Vols’ athletics director. The terms: 50% of his current salary for the duration of his contract. That’s $450,000 per year for the next three years.

“Windfall” is a term that comes to mind to describe the payout that Fulmer is set to receive from his alma mater. There’s also another term that aptly describes it: Outrageous.

Only at Tennessee would a major college athletics program pay millions of dollars to buy out the same person twice.

When Fulmer was fired as Tennessee’s head football coach in 2008, he was paid $6 million. Now he’s going to get close to $1.4 million after being fired for a second time, this time as athletics director. (Fulmer’s departure has been termed a “retirement” but you don’t pay administrators or coaches who are voluntarily retiring.)

No wonder UT is the buyout king among NCAA Division I athletic departments.

It’s outrageous enough at face value.

It’s even more outrageous when you consider that Fulmer was quietly given a contract extension and enhanced benefits package in the spring, while the university was reeling from the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fulmer had already been roundly criticized for giving football coach Jeremy Pruitt a $400,000 pay raise that most felt wasn’t deserved. But news of Fulmer’s sweet new deal didn’t leak until months after he had written a letter to season ticket holders pleading for their support in helping the university weather what was expected to be at least a $30 million athletics shortfall due to the pandemic. With attendance at football games limited to 25% of stadium capacity, Fulmer asked season ticket holders who weren’t chosen to be a part of the 25% to consider converting their tickets and donations to a gift for the Tennessee Fund.

To his credit, Fulmer took the same 15% pay cut that was being requested of other employees of the athletics department. But if we’re being fair, 15% is chump change to a man who is hauling in $900,000 per year.

Even as he pleaded for fans to consider helping out the university financially, Fulmer was secretly being given a contract extension that tacked two years onto the length of the contract and increased his buyout to 50% of his salary. UT chancellor Donde Plowman managed to keep Fulmer’s new contract a secret until the Knoxville News Sentinel exposed it in November.

Here we are, two months later, armed with the knowledge that the new deal given to Fulmer as a global pandemic ravaged the UTAD’s finances will cost the university somewhere around a million dollars extra to can him.

Never mind that it’s been well established that Fulmer schemed and plotted behind the scenes for an opportunity to become the Vols’ athletics director, that his ascension to the top of the UTAD in 2018 was commonly referred to as a coup. We’ve heard plenty over the past two-plus years about how much Fulmer loves his university by returning to help it in a role as athletics director.

At a press conference on Monday, UT’s top brass waxed poetically about Fulmer’s worth, as they put the best possible spin on his departure. “This university owes you a deep debt of gratitude for all that you’ve done to make the Volunteer Nation proud,” UT President Randy Boyd said. “We’re as proud of you today as we were that night in Tempe, when you hosted that trophy above your head. You have never stopped working to make your university better. You are a great ambassador for Tennessee. Our overall athletics program is better and on a more equal footing because of your leadership.”

Disgraced former head coach Jeremy Pruitt was spared no such praise, as he was unceremoniously fired for cause, which means the university will hope to save much of the $12 million they would’ve otherwise owed him. That’s as it should be; don’t waste sympathy on Pruitt. Considering the NCAA sanctions that are looming and the players that are leaving en masse, he single-handedly set Tennessee’s football program back to its lowest-ever point, and that’s saying a lot when you consider where his predecessors left the program. And all of it was due to recruiting violations that apparently not only happened under his watch but that he was apparently complicit in.

But skeptical Tennessee fans are right to ask just why in the world the university is bending over backwards to help the athletics director save face as he prepares to draw $37,500 per month through the end of 2023 — at the expense of donors and season ticket holders, of course. Although Boyd and Plowman were careful to stress that Fulmer was not implicated in the investigation into recruiting violations, they still happened on his watch. Fulmer strong-armed his way into the UTAD, and Pruitt was his hire. It has long been anticipated that Pruitt’s success or lack thereof would define Fulmer’s tenure as athletics director, which is why it came as no surprise Monday that Fulmer was “retiring.”

It’s easy to let nostalgia color things. I’m 41 years old, which means I cut my teeth on college football in the late ’80s and the ’90s. I was a high school student when Tennessee was enjoying its greatest success in the mid ’90s. I’ll forever have fond memories of Fulmer’s era as head coach — just as I have fond memories of John Majors’ era as head coach, no matter how badly it ended.

But that doesn’t make Fulmer’s sweet deal any less outrageous. Many Vol fans were skeptical about Fulmer’s hire as athletics director in 2018. It just seems awkward to bring in a guy who you paid $6 million to fire and name him to an administrative role. Fulmer’s hire of Pruitt as football coach didn’t excite too many people, but it was considered just about the best possible hire under the circumstances — until Fulmer gave him a $3.8 million salary. It was considered an exorbitant contract for someone who had no experience as a head coach and who was not a candidate for the same role at any other major college program. That initial contract paled in comparison to the $400,000 raise and extension that Fulmer gave Pruitt in 2020. Even though the Vols will ultimately save much of the buyout that would’ve been owed to Pruitt, Fulmer created a scenario where it would’ve cost the university more than $12 million to can Pruitt for on-the-field results this fall.

And then we learned that Fulmer was secretly being given a new contract of his own that would increase his earnings and enhance his lofty buyout arrangement. Now the guy who was paid more than $6 million to walk away in 2008 is being paid $1.4 million to walk away for a second time.

If Fulmer truly loved this university as much as he and Boyd insist he does, one would think that he’d walk away for a fraction of the money he’s owed on his contract. After all, Fulmer is a wealthy man who doesn’t need a $37,500 per month salary to live on. But any thoughts that Fulmer would leave money on the table were doused by Wednesday’s report that the university is negotiating his settlement.

Phillip Fulmer might indeed love the University of Tennessee. But he doesn’t love this university nearly as much as he loves money.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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