How Tennessee coaches fared in Year 3 (and what lessons Jeremy Pruitt might learn)
College football is back and SEC football is on the way. Like you, I can’t wait.
The won’t be a traditional season (obviously), but it still will reveal plenty about Jeremy Pruitt and the direction his Tennessee program is headed in Year 3.
Year 3 can be a make or break season for some coaches. For others, it’s just another campaign. For Tennessee coaches in recent history, we have a little bit of everything.
Johnny Majors: Year 3 — 1979
Record: 7-5, with a loss to Purdue in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.
Majors returned to Knoxville in 1977, fresh off winning a national championship at Pittsburgh. Expectations were enormous, but it took awhile for the wins to come. The Vols were 9-12-1 in his first 2 years, including a 4-8 record in SEC play.
In 1979, the Vols showed improvement in getting to a bowl game for the first time under Majors. The big moment for Majors came on Nov. 10, when they dominated No. 13 Notre Dame 40-18 at Neyland Stadium. At one point Tennessee was ranked as high as 17th in the nation. That season gave Tennessee fans reason to believe that things might be turning around.
Only 2 seasons later, UT started an impressive 11-year run under Majors in which they’d win 3 SEC titles and miss only miss 1 bowl game.
Phillip Fulmer: Year 3 — 1995
Record: 11-1, with a win over Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl.
Yes, Fulmer was Tennessee’s head coach for 4 games while Majors was recovering from heart surgery in 1992, but his first full season came in 1993. To this day, there are ill feelings among some Tennessee fans due to the dismissal of Majors and promotion of Fulmer.
The Vols won 18 games in Fulmer’s first 2 full seasons, but it was in his 3rd season that the program began to take a serious jump. They went 11-1 in 1995 (losing only to a Florida team that played for a national title) and finished No. 3. Tennessee snapped a 9-game winless streak against rival Alabama and upset Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl.
That season proved that giving Fulmer the main gig, as messy as it was, was the right move. From 1995-1998 the Vols went 45-5 under Fulmer, with 2 SEC titles and a national championship.
Derek Dooley: Year 3 — 2012
Lane Kiffin replaced Fulmer but never made it to a 3rd year. Or 2nd year.
Dooley replaced Kiffin and his first 2 seasons were nothing to write home about. The Vols went 11-14, including a humiliating 10-7 loss to Kentucky at the end of the 2011 season. The Vols had beaten the Wildcats 26 consecutive times and had new athletics director Dave Hart been on campus for more than only a few months, he might have fired Dooley then.
But Dooley inherited the Kiffin debacle, and Hart gave him 1 more chance to prove that he could succeed. Tennessee’s 2012 team had an embarrassment of riches on offense. Tyler Bray at quarterback, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson (a human cheat code) and Zach Rogers at receiver. Rajion Neal at running back. Mychal Rivera at tight end. A solid offensive line, led by Dallas Thomas. Patterson, Hunter, Rivera and Thomas were all picked in the 2013 NFL Draft.
With even a top 40 defense, that was a 10-win team. Instead, that defense was a pitiful 107th in points allowed in the country. Dooley could never get that figured out and was fired with 1 game left.
Butch Jones: Year 3 — 2015
Record: 9-4, with a win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Jones got Tennessee to the postseason in Year 2, a win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Vols were supposed to be better in Year 3, and they were. They won 9 games, including a come from behind victory over rival Georgia for the first time since 2009.
From the outside, the program appeared to be on good footing. Jones got a raise and a contract extension, and Tennessee, which returned Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Derek Bennett, was the favorite to win the East a year later. After winning the Outback Bowl in 2015, players openly talked about getting back to Tampa in 2016, site of the National Championship Game.
Tennessee started 2016 at 5-0, with wins over Florida and Georgia that gave them the inside track to Atlanta. Then they collapsed. They lost back-to-back games against No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama. Hurd left the program. They ended the season with a loss at Vanderbilt. A season that started with such promise ended with an 8-4 regular season. A victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl didn’t make anybody feel much better. In 2017, Jones was fired near the end of a 4-8 season, the worst in the history of Tennessee football.
The Vols are hoping that Pruitt’s 3rd year mirrors that of his boss (Fulmer) and avoids the 3rd season gaff of another Nick Saban pupil (Dooley).