What message did Phillip Fulmer, Jeremy Pruitt send to Tennessee football fans?

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Phillip Fulmer’s words seemed off the cuff. Perhaps caught up in the energy of the evening, Tennessee’s athletic director made a proclamation Wednesday night.

“The Vols are back,” Fulmer declared in his closing at a signing day celebration for fans at Neyland Stadium. “And before long, we’ll be taking a bite out of everybody we play’s ass.”

Asked before another recruiting celebration the following night about his comment that the Vols are back, Fulmer sounded a bit sheepish.

“Somebody caught me on camera saying it last night, I heard,” Fulmer said. “We are on our way back. People should be excited about where we are.”

The Vols are coming. Last season’s 8-5 record was just the beginning of the surge.

That’s the message Fulmer and coach Jeremy Pruitt sent to an energetic fan base at recruiting celebrations around the state.

Jokes aside, Phillip Fulmer likes Tennessee’s administration

No one plays funeral music at signing day celebrations, but it was hard not to sense an uptick in the energy surrounding Tennessee’s.

Pruitt was greeted by a standing ovation Thursday night at an event at The Barn at Sycamore Farms near Franklin.

Fulmer warmed up the fan base the night before while emcee of the event at Neyland. Speaking isn’t usually Fulmer’s strong suit, but the emcee duties brought out the best in him.

Fulmer was funny, affable and at ease. He joked about the “Jeremy Pruitt haircut” of new tight ends coach Joe Osovet, who, like Pruitt and several assistants, is bald. He needled quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke about Tennessee’s victory over Florida State in the national championship to cap the 1998 season in Fulmer’s shining coaching moment.

Fulmer turned serious, though, when discussing the administration at both events. He was effusive in his praise of interim system President Randy Boyd and called the hire of Chancellor Donde Plowman “the home run of all home runs.”

“I’m thrilled with our board, our president, our chancellor — for the first time maybe in 10 or 12, maybe 15 years,” Fulmer said. “They’re actually talking to each other and working together.”

Plowman showed she can work a room during her turn speaking at Thursday’s celebration near Franklin. She spoke about the history behind Tennessee’s mascot — the Volunteers — before ribbing rivals Florida and Georgia.

“It means something to be a Volunteer,” Plowman said. “And I like to say — kind of kidding, but kind of not — I mean, what does it mean to be a Gator? What does it mean to be a Dawg, and they have to spell it D-A-W-G?”

The orange-clad crowd delighted with laughter and applause.

Jeremy Pruitt wants to see ‘more steam’

No one associated with Tennessee was laughing just more than two years ago, unless they enjoyed gallows humor. The Vols were the joke of the SEC thanks to the bungled coaching search of 2017.

Pruitt was far from Tennessee’s first choice for the job.

That matters not now, not after Tennessee’s six-game winning streak to close the season.

Pruitt has taken a liking to former Tennessee coach Robert Neyland’s maxims. “Put on more steam” became the mantra of the Vols’ 2019 team.

The full maxim states: “If at first the game — or breaks — go against you, don't let up ... put on more steam.”

That aptly described Tennessee’s season. The Vols rallied from a 2-5 start.

But Pruitt isn’t reveling in an 8-5 record or a season that ended with a Gator Bowl triumph.

The coaching playbook says to downplay preseason expectations. Don’t get a rabid fan base even more worked up ahead of season in which expectations already will be high.

Well, so much for the coaching playbook. Pruitt closed Thursday’s celebration by putting on more steam.

“For everybody that’s associated with Tennessee, we need to raise our expectations,” Pruitt said. “And I know everybody is excited that we went 8-5 and finished the year the right way, but we’ve got to raise our expectations as a program, as a fan base, because the people we’re competing against, aight, they’ve been trying to kick us while we’ve been down, right?

“We’ve been kicked around a little bit. Well, it’s time for us to start doing a little bit of kicking ourselves.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at 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. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's FREE text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.