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College Football

New Coaching Drama, Same Old Vols

Head coach Jeremy Pruitt of the Tennessee Volunteers looks on in the first half of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against the Indiana Hoosiers at TIAA Bank Field on January 2, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Just over a year ago, in a locker room celebrating a gutsy one-point comeback win at the Gator Bowl, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt declared the 2020s “the Decade of the Vols.” Call it the usual postgame bluster, but to a Tennessee fan, the prospect of a fresh start on Rocky Top must have been pretty tantalizing. The previous decade—the period between championship-winning head coach Phil Fulmer’s ousting in 2008 and Pruitt’s hiring in December 2017—had been nothing short of a dark age.

That dark age, in brief: Lane Kiffin, Fulmer’s replacement, peaced out in the middle of the night after a year on the job, leading the student body to riot. Derek Dooley, Kiffin’s replacement, had only a 4–19 SEC record and troubling World War II analogies to show for his two years. Butch Jones, Dooley’s replacement, was fired after five seasons despite recruiting “five-star hearts” who won “the championship of life.” Then came the disastrous monthlong 2017 search to replace Jones, both protracted and public, a sin in a sport where top programs are expected to take tidy “the coach is dead, long live the coach” approaches to succession. By the time Pruitt got the job, Tennessee had hired Greg Schiano, rescinded the offer when fans and boosters protested, courted a half-dozen other candidates, and been rebuffed by them all. In the grand finale, athletic director John Currie went rogue and tried hiring Mike Leach without the university’s permission. Fulmer, serving as a special assistant to the university president, used this opportunity to exact revenge on the man who had gotten him fired all those years ago, and led a successful campaign to overthrow Currie, ascend to the athletic directorship himself, and take over the head coaching search.

Alas, the Decade of the Vols is not starting off much better than the last decade. Pruitt was fired Monday, in a kind of devious way and after a dismal 3–7 season. He leaves Tennessee with a 16-19 record, though the official reason for his firing is that an internal investigation found that “Coach Pruitt did not meet the university’s expectations for promoting an atmosphere of compliance and/or monitoring the activities of the coaches and staff who report to him.” Promoting an atmosphere of compliance and/or monitoring the activities of coaches and staff is, as you know, famously important to Tennessee; it’s only a coincidence that Pruitt has been a terrible coach and that firing him for cause is cheaper and more righteous-looking than paying him a $12.6 million buyout while the department experiences a budget shortfall.

In a press conference, university chancellor Donde Plowman wouldn’t say whether the tipster who prompted the investigation was someone inside the program or not, but it’s certainly a convenient solution to (one of) Tennessee’s woes. In fact, it’s probably an appealing option to any truly desperate school. Saving money, getting rid of a poor-performing coach, doing penance before the NCAA and probably receiving absolution as a result—who says no? Ah, so, Pruitt says no and is not so into being fired, smeared, and swindled all at once. In a statement, Pruitt’s lawyer wrote that “the timing of the university’s actions and decision appear to be preordained and more about financial convenience and expediency than a fair and complete factual determination by the university.” But all Tennessee needs here is for its legal fees to total something below $12.6 million.

Fulmer, incredibly, began both his head coaching job in 1992 and his athletic director job in 2017 amid reports he had staged coups against his predecessors, so it’s only fitting that he announced his retirement as athletic director against the backdrop of this sliminess on Monday. (Plowman said that his retirement wasn’t related to the investigation, which showed no evidence of Fulmer’s involvement in the violations.)

Fulmer may be gone, but subterfuge-loving Vols fans need not despair. Carrying on the proud tradition of scheming will be Tennessee’s interim head coach Kevin Steele, the former Auburn defensive coordinator whom a group of Auburn boosters recently tried to install as head coach Gus Malzahn’s replacement in a half-successful coup (Malzahn was fired, but Steele lost out on the top job). Tennessee hired Steele last week, suspiciously, as a “defensive assistant coach,” a job with no description. As for the timing of Steele’s arrival, Fulmer said Steele “did not know that he may be serving as acting head coach. He did know that there was an investigation going on.”

The slate (sort of) clean, Tennessee has hired a search firm to find the school’s next athletic director. Whichever lucky person ends up in that job will then get to sift through the many elite head coaching candidates eager to serve in the employ of a dysfunctional program that may stab them in the back when convenient. They may not even get to choose: This being Tennessee, meddlesome booster Jimmy Haslam is sure to be involved, and The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reports that Peyton Manning will have “a big role in the search process.”

Is there any salvaging the Decade of the Vols? Any reason for optimism? Anything to take pride in? Asked Monday how he would remember Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure, at a press conference to announce Pruitt was being fired for committing recruiting violations, Fulmer had this answer: “Certainly the recruiting has been—has been good.”