Long before Johnny Manziel had a hold on all things college football, there was Peyton Manning. Like the Texas A&M quarterback, Manning carried the burden of hype, commanded headlines and lived in the spotlight. But Fulmer says there’s no comparing the two.
“I’d take Peyton Manning every day,” the Hall of Fame coach said.
His point of view may be skewed having coached Manning at Tennessee from 1994-97, but his quick response goes beyond a reaction to on-field play. Manziel saw a whirlwind of an offseason finally take its toll on his play as it was announced Wednesday that he was suspended for the first half of Saturday’s opener against Rice for violation of an NCAA bylaw in the investigation into his allegedly taking money for autographs.
“Whether it’s selfishness or misguidance … it’s not just the autograph thing,” Fulmer said. “He’s had a whole summer of things that wouldn’t be ideal as the leader of a program, from a coach’s perspective.”
Wednesday, Fulmer took his place in the College Football Hall of Fame as the first class to be enshrined in the new facility, which is set to open to the public in the fall of 2014.
A national champion in 1998, he won two SEC titles and went 152-52 in 17 seasons and posted a .746 winning percentage, the third-highest in the nation at the time. While he’s five years removed from his Volunteers days, it hasn’t kept Fulmer from making waves in Tennessee.
During this month’s SEC BeachFeast, Fulmer seemed to point the finger at the school’s administration for the program’s decline, which has included three straight losing seasons.
“What happened to us basically was our leadership. We had four presidents in six years,” he told AL.com. “We ended up with an athletic director that wasn’t prepared for the job. Not a terrible guy or anything like that. He got twisted like a pretzel by the middle management of the university. We lost a lot of the edges that you have to have. (Current athletic director) Dave Hart’s very aware of those, and he’s working to change things. We didn’t get dumb or lazy all of a sudden. There were obviously some things that were different.
“When you have a great president and a great athletic director and you replace them with substandard people that have no idea, what do you expect is going to happen? And you do that three other times? It’s crazy.”
But during a press conference at East Tennessee State about his new role, Fulmer addressed those earlier comments, saying “I understand it’s been a topic of conversation in Knoxville. So let me clarify something. I know I was responsible for both the good and the bad because I was the head coach. I know I had responsibility.”
Despite those comments, there’s no bitterness with Fulmer and Tennessee. He is supportive of new coach Butch Jones, who he has had multiple meetings with, and applauds Jones’ connecting with the program’s past stars, bringing the likes of Arian Foster and Jamal Lewis back to campus.
“Like every other Tennessee person who cares about Tennessee athletics, I hope he does well,” Fulmer said. “He’s got a great start in bringing the Tennessee family back together. He’s saying the right things. He’s doing the right things thus far, but it’s always ‘the proof is in the pudding.'”
At 62, he’s six years younger than former rival and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and 11 years younger than Kansas State’s Bill Snyder.
But there’s no itch to return to coaching. He admits this time of year it gets harder, but he’s content in retirement and in his role as a consultant with East Tennessee State’s fledgling program.
“I guess you never say never but it’s not likely. If the right opportunity presented itself I would certainly look at it,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed time with my children and grandchildren that I never had.”