Perhaps no SEC team is more eager to turn the page to a new season than Tennessee, which last year went winless in the league (0-8) for the first time in school history and then went through a tumultuous search for a new head coach.
The Volunteers finally hired Jeremy Pruitt, but not before changing athletic directors mid-search, and now they’re banking on their first-time head coach to restore a once-proud program.
“He’s trying to turn this program around,” Tennessee wide receiver Marquez Callaway said Wednesday as SEC Media Days continued at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
“We really think we got a steal in coach Pruitt,” Vols defensive lineman Kyle Phillips said. “It gave our team a boost of confidence to know we’re in good hands.”
Tennessee’s confidence in Pruitt – a former assistant at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State – appears partly rooted in belief in the man who hired him: new athletic director Phillip Fulmer, a first-ballot Hall of Famer for his 152-52 record in 17 years as the Vols’ coach from 1992 until his firing in 2008. But what also has the attention of Tennessee players is Pruitt’s record as an assistant coach.
He was on the staff of teams that won four of the past seven national championships – defensive backs coach at Alabama in 2011 and 2012; defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013; defensive coordinator at Bama last season. (He was defensive coordinator at Georgia in 2014-15, Mark Richt’s final two seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach.)
Now Pruitt is in charge of a Tennessee program that has had a winning SEC record in only one of the past nine seasons under three head coaches (Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones).
“For me, when I chose to go to Tennessee, and our staff chose to go to Tennessee, our No. 1 goal was to build a championship program,” Pruitt said Wednesday. “To do that, it takes commitment, and it takes resources.
“When you talk about commitment, you can look at the Tennessee fan base. … The passion, you can feel it. We're hungry. They're hungry. Everybody's hungry. We're excited to get started. We're excited to get this era started and can't wait to do it.”
He said having Fulmer in the athletic director’s office “30 feet down the hall” will help.
“I think he’s going to expedite this process to help us get to be a championship program again,” Pruitt said.
The Vols have a long way to go. A disappointing decade seemingly bottomed out last season.
Tennessee’s 0-8 record in SEC games (4-8 overall) was punctuated by a season-closing 42-24 loss to Vanderbilt, which was 1-7 in league play. The Vols have lost to Vandy in four of the past six seasons after going 28-1 vs. the Commodores from 1983-2011.
“The only thing I can assess is the last six months. I wasn't at Tennessee the last 10 years,” Pruitt said. “Right now I’d say that from the top down, from the boosters, the fan base, the players, everybody involved in the program, we're all running in the same direction, and we're running as fast as we can. So I think that's what it takes, and that's all we're worried about.”
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