By Mark Nagi
Let me tell you… no one does a coaching search like Tennessee.
Lane Kiffin’s midnight run led to a wild search by athletics director Mike Hamilton that finished with the inept Derek Dooley installed as the Vols new head coach in 2010.
When Dooley’s incompetence was finally too much in 2012, athletics director Dave Hart was played by Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Louisville’s Charlie Strong, before finally settling on Butch Jones.
When Jones was booted near the end of 2017, we had one of the craziest coaching searches in the history of college sports. Athletics director John Currie tried to hire Greg Schiano, only to have the move squashed by thousands of angry Tennessee fans. He was then turned down by Gundy and North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren. Washington State’s Mike Leach was offered the job, but before he could accept, Currie himself was fired by UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport.
She hired Phillip Fulmer as the new AD, who then hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as the 26th head coach in the history of Tennessee football.
Now it’s 2020, and if you listen to the local sports talk shows, you’d think that we are on the cusp of another coaching search.
Tennessee sits at 2-4, with four games remaining on the schedule. They’ll be underdogs in three of them, so a 3-7 final record is likely. This, of course, is not what Vols fans have expected, especially after UT won its last six games in 2019 and their first two to begin this season.
The Vols have certainly taken a few steps back. In year 3 of the Pruitt era the Vols still don’t have an SEC caliber quarterback. The defense is supposed to be Pruitt’s specialty, but they are unable to stop a slant pass.
No, Tennessee does not look like a team that will be competing for an SEC championship anytime soon. The Vols still don’t play within a couple of touchdowns against their three biggest rivals (Alabama, Florida, Georgia). Those programs continue to out-recruit Tennessee as well.
So, are the critics correct? Pruitt and this coaching staff are not living up to expectations. Pruitt fired defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh after only four games this season, leaving Tennessee on the hook for more than $830,000. But they are still paying offensive coordinator Jim Chaney $1.6 million. And quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke is making at least $355,000. Tennessee is not getting their monies worth from those two guys in particular.
Pruitt himself is making $3.8 million this year and got a contract extension through 2025 for reasons that truly defy explanation.
Which brings me back to the original premise of this article. Should Pruitt be on the hot seat? I believe so. The Vols are currently 15-16 under Pruitt. That’s not good enough.
But will Pruitt be dismissed following the 2020 season?
Never say never, but I would be stunned if Fulmer fired Pruitt.
The biggest reason to me is the financial aspect. If Pruitt were to be fired, Tennessee would be on the hook for over $12 million in buyouts for him and his staff. There is simply no possible way to justify giving away that kind of cash right now. The pandemic has devastated UT’s athletic budget. They are bringing in tens of millions fewer dollars than pre-pandemic.
Tennessee has seen more than its share of self-inflicted PR nightmares over the years, and even they wouldn’t want to go down that road.
The other reason why Pruitt most likely won’t be fired is because Fulmer is giving him every chance to succeed. To this day, Fulmer feels that he shouldn’t have been dismissed near the end of the 2008 season, and he doesn’t want to play the Hamilton role in 2020.
The rest of this season likely won’t be fun for Tennessee fans, and they likely won’t be looking forward to 2021. But Pruitt is probably getting a fourth year… which will likely be a make or break campaign for his future in Knoxville.