One football Vol to another: “So, who’s our coach today?”
The Tennessee staff is changing again, significantly and rapidly. What is happening reminds me of the children’s group game, fruit basket turnover.
In that one, little people walk around inside a circle of chairs, one fewer than the number of little people. With a couple of fakes and one false alarm, the managing director, supposedly an adult, says “Sit down.”
Two-thirds of a second thereafter comes a mad scramble not to get left standing. That’s what we have here – coaches flying everywhere.
In the disappointment of 2018, Jeremy Pruitt made only three moves. This time, even with six consecutive victories and a positive outlook, there are already four. The head coach tried to prevent one or more of these departures but it didn’t take him long to fill the openings.
It appears recruiting skills and enthusiasm were priorities.
There was no staff movement in December. Coaches are smart, very smart. They don’t go away and give up bowl bonuses.
There were two changes in January. David Johnson went to Florida State in a reunion of Memphis coaches. Pruitt brought ex-Vol Jay Graham home from Texas A&M to coach running backs.
Old friend Kevin Sherrer, demoted after 2018, went to the New York Giants to coach inside linebackers. Pro coaches don’t have to recruit. Pruitt shifted tight ends coach Brian Niedermeyer to fill that vacancy and promoted former junior college coach Joe Osovet from director of football programming (whatever that is) to coach tight ends.
Osovet projects as a strong recruiter. Niedermeyer was 2018 national recruiter of the year.
There was double-barrel action on Monday. It was expected. Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker’s contract expired at the end of January and had not been extended. He chose to go to South Carolina.
Outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph went to the NFL, to the Houston Texans.
Before they were out the door, Pruitt had picked their replacements – Colorado’s Jimmy Brumbaugh for inside defenders and Akron’s Shelton Felton for outsiders. Neither contract has been finalized but I do believe they’ll be here.
There are interesting connections between them and Tennessee.
Brumbaugh produced outstanding results at Kentucky a few seasons ago, at the same time Derrick Ansley was on the Wildcats’ staff. Ansley is now Tennessee defensive coordinator.
Felton resigned as assistant head coach at Chattanooga to join Pruitt’s 2018 support staff. He moved to an on-the-field job with the Zips but one phone call (and a pay raise) put him back on I-75.
Felton, like Pruitt, came up the hard way. He was a high school coach in Georgia.
In another move that was genuine fruit basket turnover, former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long is coming to Tennessee as some kind of special aide to Pruitt.
In a strange development, Long and the Fighting Irish parted company in December. The year before, he was regarded as one of the top assistants in the business, a finalist for the Broyles Award. I don’t know this as fact but rumor has it that Chip was just too tough, too intense, for some of the other coaches in South Bend. He should be just right to work with Pruitt.
Long previously was offensive coordinator at Memphis. He coached four seasons at Arizona State.
Almost forgot to tell you, in the aftermath of the 2018 season, Jim Chaney moved from Georgia to be the Vols’ offensive coordinator. Tee Martin returned to coach receivers. Ansley came from the Oakland Raiders to be defensive coordinator.
Unless something has happened in the last few hours, Niedermeyer, offensive line coach Will Friend and quarterback coach Chris Weinke remain from the original staff.
This may sound cold but a certain amount of staff turnover is healthy if the least productive assistants depart and replacements are better and cost less. Sometimes teams actually gain new ideas – that work.
Overhauling a coaching staff does not guarantee favorable results. The secret to success is improving the group with each opportunity without destroying chemical balance.
Most head coaches, including Pruitt, prefer to work in a comfort zone. They look for acquaintances or at least connections. They rarely employ total strangers.
Old friends make great associates if they are also good at what they are supposed to do. Old friends become an emotional problem if the time comes when they have to go. Families are entwined.
Some coaching staffs are simply professionals, career-oriented, hired guns. Some develop true loyalty. Erk Russell worked for Vince Dooley at Georgia for 16 years. John Chavis never wanted to leave Phillip Fulmer’s group.
Through assistant coaches’ eyes, Tennessee now must look like a good place to work. Facilities are excellent. The school is setting or paying at least market value. After a decade of depression, there is an upward trend.
Fulmer, welcomed into the College Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot, knows what it takes to succeed in the sport. It helps to have a football man as athletics director.
It appears Vol coaches are sufficiently appreciated, even exalted. They undoubtedly receive social invitations for golf and boat rides and maybe a few stock tips and free dinners.
Could be Pruitt is a challenge. He is definitely demanding. Players say he is tough but fair. Pressure (money) makes SEC football different from church league softball.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.