Phillip Fulmer's request for a pay cut sends a message to us all | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Leaders are best distinguished in times of crisis. And they are distinguished by actions, not words.

Take Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer for example. He informed Tennessee season-ticket holders in an email last week that he had requested a 15% pay cut. He also stated that UT had reduced the 2020-21 operating budget by 20% in all departments because of the financial strain resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

I'm sure Fulmer will later request an additional five percent reduction in his annual salary of more than $1 million just to stay in line with UT’s overall budget cuts. After all, he has a track record for generosity. In 2007, he and his wife donated $1 million to the university.

UT showed its appreciation by giving him a $6 million buyout when he was fired before the end of the 2008 season. Perhaps, after the pandemic has run its course, the university will raise his pay to make up for the 15% salary reduction.

Or, it could refuse to accept his request. Surely, there are other ways to reduce UT’s budget than by taking money from one of the hardest working athletic directors in the country. Not only does Fulmer run UT’s athletic department, he helps coach the offensive line.

One Tennessee fan who values Fulmer’s contributions to the program said Big Orange Nation needed to pick up the AD's financial slack.

“I’m starting the ‘Fulmer 15,’ ” Craig messaged me. “If he’s going to take a 15% cut as the leader of our athletic department, we as a community need to make it up to him. How can we expect him to get by on $850,000 a year?"

“Aren’t we still paying (former coach) Butch Jones? Maybe, we could get him to join the Fulmer 15.”

Craig said he would encourage others to donate to the cause.

Since this column occasionally attracts sarcastic responses, I’m not sure how serious his message was.

But there’s no doubting the seriousness of Fulmer’s message to Tennessee fans. It goes something like: “Give us more money.”

Stadium seating will be limited to 25% of capacity because of the pandemic. Of course, fans who have already paid for season tickets and made the necessary donation will be reimbursed if they don’t qualify for seating in a down-sized version of Neyland Stadium.

But, as Fulmer informed fans, there is an alternative.

“Here’s what I need you to do,” he wrote. “Stick with us. Convert your football tickets into a philanthropic gift to the Tennessee Fund.”

I realize this isn’t the best time for philanthropy. People have lost their jobs and businesses. Others have been furloughed or had their salary reduced.

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer is seen during University of Tennessee Vols football practice Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

However, you will get something in return if you heed Fulmer’s request. Your name will be included on a “permanent tribute wall” inside Neyland Stadium for “giving your all” when the Vols needed it most.

There’s more.

Contributing fans also will receive an invitation to “an exclusive celebration” the night before the 2021 Orange & White game. That’s assuming there is an Orange & White game.

Many UT fans would respond positively to Fulmer’s cry for help even if they didn’t receive an invitation to a spring-game celebration. They’re loyal to a fault.

Moreover, it’s not as though Fulmer is asking them for financial sacrifices without making some himself.

Since I'm granted a press pass for games at Neyland Stadium, I won’t have an opportunity to convert season tickets into a philanthropic gift. But Fulmer’s message made me rethink what the Cincinnati Reds owe me.

My brother-in-law is a huge Los Angeles Dodgers fan. So, in February, I purchased two tickets to a Reds-Dodgers game in June. After the game was canceled because of the pandemic, the Reds informed me I was eligible for a refund.

I’ve decided to pass on that. The Reds can keep my ticket money as a gift.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.