By Mark Nagi
Tennessee’s 2020 season was one to forget. From a six-game losing streak to a quarterback quandary that was never solved, to a total of seven losses that were each by double digits… let’s just say that the Vol Network won’t be producing any special DVDs about the past 10 games.
Things went from bad to worse when it was announced that head coach Jeremy Pruitt, assistant coaches and multiple players tested positive for COVID-19, which forced them out of a spot in the Liberty Bowl.
The University of Tennessee’s Athletic Department released the following statement: “After receiving Sunday’s (December 20) COVID-19 test results, the University of Tennessee football program has paused all team activities and will be unable to compete in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The test results revealed an increase in positive cases among student-athletes and staff and subsequent contact tracing. The decision was made in consultation with health officials, the Southeastern Conference and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The student-athletes and staff affected are taking the appropriate safety measures in accordance with University, CDC and local health department guidelines. The University of Tennessee extends its sincere appreciation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the city of Memphis and is disappointed it will not be able to fulfill its commitment on New Year’s Eve.”
This means that all attention when it comes to the football program turns to the future of Pruitt, and where Tennessee goes from here heading into 2021.
When it looked like Tennessee was playing in this bowl game, Tennessee released a statement from athletics director Phillip Fulmer that sure made it seem like Pruitt was getting a fourth season. “It’s a tremendous development opportunity for our team and should serve as a primer to spring practice for Coach Pruitt and our returners.”
Fulmer knows a lot about coaching changes. Back in 2008, he was dismissed after winning 152 games, two SEC titles and one national championship. To this day, he feels that he shouldn’t have been fired. This might affect his decision when it comes to Pruitt. Fulmer, of course, hired Pruitt at the end of the coaching search mess of 2017 and is going to give him every opportunity to succeed. Their fates are aligned. If Pruitt turns things around, Fulmer looks good. If Pruitt can’t turn the tide, Fulmer’s legacy is somewhat tarnished, and both Pruitt and Fulmer likely will be shown the door.
If Pruitt is safe, he certainly is going to have to make changes to his staff. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke in particular are the assistants whose jobs are most in jeopardy. Tennessee’s quarterback problems were never resolved, and the offense struggled mightily most of the year.
College football is a results-driven business. And Pruitt is not delivering. The Vols are 16-19 under his guidance, with an 0-9 record against Tennessee’s three biggest rivals (Alabama, Florida, Georgia).
No matter what happens, Pruitt’s first head coaching job is sitting on shaky ground.