Bruised Orange: Tennessee dumps Jeremy Pruitt

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells at the officials during a game against Alabama Oct. 19, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Tennessee fired Pruitt Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Vasha Hunt/AP)
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells at the officials during a game against Alabama Oct. 19, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Tennessee fired Pruitt Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

Credit: Vasha Hunt

Credit: Vasha Hunt

Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt on Monday. Who saw that coming? Only everybody.

Pruitt — once the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama — was hired as head coach by the folks in Knoxville on Dec. 7, 2017. This completed the worst coaching search in the history of searches. The Volunteers offered the job to Greg Schiano, then Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. Tennessee withdrew its offer after a pushback linking Schiano to an unproved claim that, as a Penn State assistant, he witnessed Jerry Sandusky with an adolescent in the shower.

Much more would happen. Dave Doeren of North Carolina State removed his name from consideration, which didn’t make much sense. (ACC coaches don’t often spurn SEC jobs.) John Currie, then Tennessee’ athletic director, flew west to interview Mike Leach, then of Washington State. Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport ordered Currie to return to campus — and by no means should he offer Leach the job. Currie was then relieved of his duties, to be replaced by Philip Fulmer, the former Vols coach who’d never been an AD but who was happy to ride to his alma mater’s rescue.

Fulmer hired Pruitt. This seemed a bad marriage from the start. Pruitt is aggressively unpolished. Tennessee is a fishbowl job. Fulmer, still stinging from his own ouster as head coach, figured to be the worst sort of boss. By the time 2017 became 2018, the Vols reported to the NCAA that their AD had been caught in coaching garb offering tutorials to offensive linemen on the practice field, which is a violation. (Only registered coaches are permitted to, um, coach.)

Georgia coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt react on the sidelines as Georgia draws a penalty against Missouri on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Athens. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Georgia coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt react on the sidelines as Georgia draws a penalty against Missouri on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Athens. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Pruitt went 5-7 in his first season. His second began with a loss at Neyland Stadium to Georgia State. Speaking of the Panthers, Pruitt said, not quite grammatically: “Blocking, tackling, execution – they done all that today.”

The Vols lost their next game to BYU. At that moment, it would have surprised no one if Fulmer had fired Pruitt and named himself interim coach. That didn’t happen. Indeed, Tennessee under Pruitt finished the year with six consecutive victories, none against a ranked team. The Big Orange opened the delayed-by-a-month 2020 season with victories over Missouri, working under new coach Eliah Drinkwitz, and South Carolina, coached by the soon-to-be-dumped Will Muschamp. Then reality arrived.

Tennessee lost to Georgia by 23 points, to Kentucky by 27 and to Alabama by 31. Slightly closer losses to Arkansas, Auburn and Florida followed. The Vols finished 3-7. Then it became known that the school itself was investigating Pruitt’s recruiting. ESPN reported that the pursuit of tackle Amarius Mims of Bleckley County High had become a matter of interest. (Mims signed with Georgia.) Many schools under NCAA scrutiny make it their mission to protect their coaches at all costs. Tennessee appears to have viewed this probe as a vehicle to cut costs.

Those six wins in a row prompted the Vols, for no reason whatsoever, to hand Pruitt a contract extension through January 2026. The new deal set his buyout at $12.4 million — not in Gus Malzahn territory, but still pricy, especially coming off a pandemic season. But wait! Being fired for violating NCAA rules could enable the Big Orange to dump Pruitt for cause. Meaning: no buyout! Bye, Jeremy!

Fulmer also announced his resignation Monday. Blake Toppmeyer of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that Fulmer wants the next AD to hire Pruitt’s successor. Thing is, there isn’t yet a next GM, and it appears Pruitt’s successor was hired six days ago. (Yes, this is complicated.) The Vols announced last week the hiring of Kevin Steele, most recently a high-salaried defensive coordinator at Auburn, as DC. This despite ESPN reporting that the school hadn’t renewed the contracts of incumbent assistants.

Although Steele was technically hired to work with Pruitt, it was widely believed that Tennessee was hiring Steele to replace Pruitt. Here’s Steele, as quoted in a press release Tuesday: “I am truly grateful to coach Pruitt and coach Fulmer for this opportunity, and I am eager to get to work alongside them once again.” So much for that.

According to Toppmeyer, Steele has been named interim head coach. If you’re keeping score, he’ll be Tennessee’s sixth HC since Fulmer was pushed aside in 2008. Lane Kiffin stayed a year. Derek Dooley lasted three. Butch Jones, champion of life, made it through five. Pruitt is gone after 35 games, 19 of them losses.

Now comes Steele, who not long ago was the choice of some boosters to succeed Malzahn at Auburn. (The Tigers hired Bryan Harsin of Boise State instead.) There’s no intrigue like SEC intrigue, and lately there’s no place where the football program — not even at Auburn — can tie itself in knots like the one in Knoxville.

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