Pruitt gone, Fulmer going, Tennessee starting over again

Marvin Westwestwords

Jeremy Pruitt is gone. Phillip Fulmer is going. The Tennessee athletics department will again be retooled. It seemed inevitable. Losing is very expensive.

Coach Pruitt, assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton and seven from the recruiting and support staffs have been fired.

Fulmer, 70, submitted his resignation as athletics director effective when the university chooses a new one. He wants the school to have a new department leader before it hires a new coach. He was praised by those above him for his attitude and leadership.

There wasn’t much good to say about Pruitt. He and his constantly changing assortment of assistants went backwards from a six-game winning streak at the end of 2019 to a 3-7 record in 2020. Several of the setbacks were humbling. Vol fans were distraught. Critics were overwhelming. National media stars snickered.

The negative trend was bad but violations of NCAA rules were worse. The internal investigation found cause to fire Pruitt without paying him the $12 million buyout in his contract. Penalties are coming. Lawsuits may follow.

Chancellor Donde Plowman expressed surprise and disappointment at the number and seriousness of the violations. She delivered a powerful declaration that Tennessee wants to and will win with integrity. She has already launched a search firm to find an experienced replacement for Fulmer.

He was hired three years ago after a disastrous coaching search by previous athletics director John Currie. He knows what a mess that was.

He undoubtedly feels partially responsible for the football failure. Pruitt and Fulmer were a team, joined at the hip. Jeremy was Phillip’s hand-picked person to restore Volunteer football to respectability. The AD gave the coach everything he sought to be successful – and threw in a raise and contract extension.

The three-year record of 16-19 says Pruitt didn’t make it.

Suspicion of recruiting violations and improper benefits to players has plagued Pruitt and Tennessee football since mid-November. UT compliance officials were first to get involved. Attorney specialists were added. Players and UT employees at different levels were questioned.

Pruitt and his attorney spent several hours last Thursday with investigators. The NCAA monitored questions and answers.

Dr. Plowman said she hopes the internal investigation will soon be concluded. She expects the NCAA will pick up the trail. Dismissing 10 employees looks like the dramatic first step toward repentance and redemption.

What to do next? Former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is the acting head coach. Peyton Manning is available as a knowledgeable consultant. UT president Randy Boyd is a successful businessman who understands the athletics director must manage a crowd of people and a multi-million-dollar budget. Dr. Plowman has been a quick study on athletics and will know who in the SEC to ask for guidance.

Finding Fulmer’s replacement should be an easy project compared to finding the right coach. Tennessee hasn’t had one in a while.

Lane Kiffin stayed one season. Probation was among the residuals.

Derek Dooley got the job on the strength of a losing record at Louisiana Tech. His last name was his greatest credential. It helped that his dad was a famous coach and that Derek had worked for Nick Saban.

Derek did several entertaining (or goofy) things. His record was 15-21.

Butch Jones achieved fame at Central Michigan and Cincinnati on the coattails of Brian Kelly. Butch was very impressive in an interview with then UT athletics director Dave Hart. He had many colorful sayings.

Butch twice won nine games with the Vols but the wheels came off the carriage in 2017. Tennessee went 0-8 against SEC foes. Butch was paid several millions to go away.

Currie’s scattered search for a coach became an embarrassment. Fulmer, Hall of Fame coach who was fired with a career record of 152-52-1 and a national championship, was brought back to restore order.

Time was running short in the recruiting year. There was no long line of established head coaches clamoring for the job. Fulmer’s selection of Pruitt looked like a knee-jerk decision. Jeremy had been defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama. He was going to learn at the job at Tennessee.

Staff instability became a trademark. Assistants came and went. Pruitt had trouble deciding what to do at the quarterback position.

Optimism broke through with the Gator Bowl victory over Indiana. Pruitt predicted the 2020s would belong to the Volunteers. What looked like success was a mirage.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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