Even by SEC standards, the fall of Jeremy Pruitt was stunning
Sept. 24, 2020.
It was 2 days before the delayed start of the 2020 season when Tennessee announced that Jeremy Pruitt received an extension from athletic director Phillip Fulmer. The deal was through the 2025 season (Jan. 31, 2026), and it included a buyout just south of $13 million. At the time, it wasn’t met with criticism. Pruitt had just finished Year 2 in Knoxville on a 6-game winning streak. This was the guy who was not far removed from being considered one of the favorites to replace Nick Saban at Alabama someday, so it wasn’t deemed a reach to extend Pruitt.
Jan. 18, 2021.
It took 116 days for the SEC to chew up Pruitt and spit him out. One 3-7 season, one internal investigation into recruiting violations and 0 buyout dollars later, Pruitt is gone at Tennessee. From boasting the nation’s longest active winning streak to firing a head coach in 4 months seems like a different sort of collapse.
That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the fact that last month, Fulmer delivered this infamous assessment of Pruitt:
Phillip Fulmer: “An interesting statistic that i found, Coach Majors was 14-15-1 in his first 30 games and Coach Pruitt is 15-15 in his first 30 games”
“I really think we’re a better football team than our record has shown”
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 3, 2020
Let’s move beyond the absurd realization that Fulmer had to look up stats to justify that Pruitt was doing just fine, and that 6 consecutive double-digit losses for the first time in program history weren’t the more relevant stat for the Year 3 head coach.
Regardless of whether you thought Pruitt would replace Saban, what happened to get us to Monday still remains baffling. We watched someone go from one of the top up-and-coming SEC coaches at a traditional power to getting fired in less than 4 months.
And perhaps even more mind-blowing was that the news of Pruitt’s firing itself didn’t necessarily come as a shock. Once it was reported on the day of the 2020 regular-season finale that Tennessee was conducting an internal investigation into Pruitt, was there anyone who thought he’d overcome that after a 3-7 season? It certainly didn’t seem like it. The only potential holdup could have been whether Fulmer would be fired as well.
The Knoxville News reported that Fulmer is stepping down, though not as a result of the investigation. The report said that Fulmer wanted his successor to hire the next football coach.
Good luck with that.
Once upon a time, it appeared that Pruitt was on his way to rising above some rather pedestrian expectations after a handful of other candidates publicly turned down the opportunity to replace Butch Jones. Well, they either turned it down, or they were like Greg Schiano and Mike Leach, who found out that they no longer had a job to accept. It fell to Pruitt, who had moments when it didn’t seem like it was his first FBS head coaching gig.
Remember when he beat a ranked Auburn squad on the road in Year 1? Remember when Pruitt’s Vols stomped a top-15 Kentucky team a month after that?
I mean, 3 months ago, Pruitt boasted an 8-game winning streak dating to a “closer-than-the-final-indicated” loss to Alabama in 2019. Three months ago, Pruitt led No. 14 Tennessee into a matchup of unbeatens against No. 3 Georgia as just a 12-point road underdog. And he had a halftime lead! After that, his team was outscored 229-86. Well, in games that weren’t played against Vanderbilt.
How does that happen? You can’t just chalk that up to playing during a pandemic and dealing with depth issues. Players and coaches stopped responding to Pruitt.
After that blowout loss to Kentucky, which was the Cats’ first win in Knoxville since 1984, Pruitt fired co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. That was after Brumbaugh had been with the Vols for 4 games. Somewhere in that 2.5-year stretch, Pruitt’s staff turnover should’ve been a major red flag:
The staff turnover Jeremy Pruitt has had at Tennessee in just 29 games is mind boggling.
2 offensive coordinators
2 defensive coordinators
3 RB coaches
2 Co-DCs have left
2 special teams coordinators
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) October 19, 2020
It’s different if you’re getting coaches plucked off a championship staff like Alabama. Pruitt finished his 3 years in Knoxville with a 16-19 record. He had more home losses to Sun Belt teams (1) than he had wins against Tennessee’s 3 major rivals (0). Shoot, Pruitt had as many home losses to Sun Belt teams as he had losses to rivals of less than 20 points (1).
But Pruitt didn’t just get fired because he didn’t live up to his word to recruit well enough to never get embarrassed by Georgia again. He didn’t just get fired because of his laughable comment after a 31-point loss to Alabama that Tennessee was “closing the gap.” And amazingly, Pruitt didn’t get fired because of his Year 2 home losses to Georgia State and BYU, which were well in the rearview mirror by the time 2019 ended.
Pruitt is out of a job because in Year 3, he lost total control of the program. He showed he had no idea what he was doing at the quarterback position when he stuck with mistake-prone Jarrett Guarantano deep into the season. His halftime adjustments yielded a 108-point second-half deficit during that 6-game losing streak. He watched his team get blown out in the second half against an Arkansas team with a Year 1 head coach who entered the year with a team simply trying to win its first SEC game in over 1,000 days.
Tennessee can claim it fired Pruitt because of recruiting violations. Consider that another example of him not having his affairs in order. I’ll instead consider that the ace-in-the-hole that just saved the Vols nearly $13 million. Much like Jim McElwain when he was fired with cause by Florida for faking death threats in the middle of a disastrous 2017 season, Pruitt provided an excuse not to warrant a Year 4.
It remains to be seen how the severity of Pruitt’s violations will impact the coaching search and what’s in store for the Vols beyond 2021. We don’t know if Greg Sankey would cite that as a reason to block a hiring of Hugh Freeze, who was at the center of recruiting violations at Ole Miss. We also don’t know if Freeze or Tennessee natives Jamey Chadwell and Billy Napier would have interest in the job with that NCAA cloud hanging over the program.
If there were indeed Level I violations discovered as ESPN reported, that changes how this job will be viewed. When Freeze’s NCAA violations put Ole Miss on a 2-year bowl ban with a loss of scholarships, it was the result of 15 Level I violations.
This search has plenty of moving pieces, though even under NCAA investigation, it shouldn’t be quite as chaotic as the 2017 search that landed Pruitt in Knoxville. According to Bruce Feldman, Peyton Manning will have “a big role” in the search for Pruitt’s successor. I’d love to know what those conversations consist of.
“Hey, want to come to a place where we can make extensions and buyouts disappear? Come to Rocky Top!”
Pruitt’s fall should serve as a reminder that extensions and pandemics aren’t excuses when it comes to deciding to get rid of a head coach. Put together a 3-7 season with 7 double-digit losses and you can watch even your most loyal and powerful supporter sheepishly step down at season’s end.
Pruitt didn’t make good on Fulmer’s investment. Had Pruitt successfully done that, Lord knows we’d be talking about the Tennessee hype train ramping up for 2021.
It took 116 days to turn that into a pipe dream.