Tennessee has long sought to be one of the great research universities of our land. It is moving on up.
It is currently conducting an experiment in how to further destroy a football program. In leaving Jeremy Pruitt dangling, it is driving away established players and discouraging recruits. It may end up saving money in one scene and losing a fortune in another.
In broad daylight and maybe in the still of the night, something strong is brewing around and about Tennessee football. It could be only a thunderstorm. It could be a tornado.
What started in November as an internal investigation by the compliance department has intensified. There have been whispers of impermissible benefits to players and/or illegal recruiting – but no confirmation.
Even in economic hard times, the university has invested in high-priced legal guidance. That sends an ominous message but we don’t know what it is.
Hard to tell which way the wind is blowing. This could be defensive strategizing to minimize NCAA punishment. It could mean there is more investigating going on, and more to come, a more complex inquiry. It could mean UT has decided to look under every single rock for reasons to remove Pruitt as coach – without paying some or all of the multi-million-dollar buyout.
If you know anybody, other than Phillip Fulmer, who hopes to retain Pruitt as coach, please explain that whatever is happening does not improve his chances of winning games.
Three years ago, Fulmer was charged with finding the best available solution, as fast as he could, to the Tennessee problem created by Butch Jones and John Currie.
Phillip took the challenge seriously. He asked around and was told Jeremy was the answer. One person in position to know said he was “a perfect combination of Mark Richt and Nick Saban.”
Fulmer knew what it took to win. He conducted interviews. He bought the hype.
On the sixth day of the search, he selected Jeremy to make the Volunteers great again. Ace agent Jim Sexton negotiated a six-year contract starting at $3.8 million plus nice, friendly fringe benefits.
Pruitt spotted other needs, including a new weight room and an additional supply of money to pay choice assistants and a great strength coach. Fulmer said OK to everything. Fixing football was a really big deal.
Pruitt surrounded himself with old friends. You know how that turned out. How far wrong can it go?
His original choice of coaching assistants was the reboot of instability. That affliction certainly didn’t start with him. From 2005 through 2020, the University of Tennessee has had four presidents, five chancellors, four athletics directors, five head football coaches and nine losing seasons.
The turnover is inexplicable, borderline insane. Blame the board of trustees and powerbrokers behind the scene for an assortment of mistakes, bad decisions, poor choices. There were too many errors to call it accidental. Somebody simply didn’t know what they were doing.
Pruitt is the epitome of instability. He has set a world record for changing assistant coaches. Only one of his original 11 remains and he may soon be gone. Replacements were replaced. One got ejected while the merry-go-round was moving.
There were some happy times. Tennessee stunned Auburn in 2018. Brian Niedermeyer became national recruiter of the year. Tennessee won six consecutive games to wrap up 2019.
The Jan. 2 Gator Bowl victory over Indiana was intoxicating. The coach boldly proclaimed the 2020s would be the “Decade of the Vols.”
Fulmer celebrated the modest accomplishments by agreeing with Sexton’s proposal for a contract extension and raise. Chancellor Donde Plowman approved – and added a thank-you to Fulmer’s account. That’s how it goes among SEC elites. They get bonuses for doing the basics.
We commoners find it strange to pay more for less.
The virus hurt. It probably didn’t strike Tennessee any harder than it hit other places but the net result for the Volunteers was a disaster, losses by humbling margins, a shocking upset at Neyland Stadium by a mediocre Kentucky team, a painful loss at starting-over Arkansas.
Vanderbilt saved the Vols from the absolute worst record in history.
How low can it go? There are still a couple of steps lower. Losing was bad. Looking bad made it worse. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano became the focal point. Pruitt stuck with him as if he was the last link to life.
There was a time Jeremy thought he wanted to be a head coach of big-time football. He liked the idea of depositing big-time pay checks.
I can’t prove it but I think he has since discovered he doesn’t like some of the sideshow that goes with the Tennessee job. His Sunday TV gig underscored that idea. It seemed so inconvenient to have to face a high-def camera after an embarrassing late-night loss.
Alas, no way to avoid it. The Jeremy Pruitt Show and money are close companions.
Pruitt is, by experience and nature, a football coach. He is not a polished public speaker. He can undoubtedly communicate with big donors but he doesn’t strike me as a social butterfly.
He is a defensive coordinator. He was good at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama. Outstanding players were factors in his success.
Wouldn’t it be something if he chose to take whatever he can get while the getting is good? Alabama could buy him back as early as tomorrow – and Tennessee could move on to other research.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com