The reaction to allegations that Jeremy Pruitt might be tough on his fellow employees has become a bit laughable.
Most ot the public became aware of Pruitt’s possible salty ways at SEC Media Days when Tennessee’s first-year head coach was accused of not having the personality head coaches most often have, according to CBS analyst Aaron Murray and ESPN analyst David Pollack.
Following those comments, I did some digging into those allegations and just how bad things got between Pruitt and former Georgia head coach Mark Richt. Things were indeed very bad when the two coaches were at Georgia. Things were so hostile that I was told the two simply could not work together any longer. That’s why Pruitt left for Alabama after just two years at Georgia.
I have also been told that Pruitt has ruffled some feathers at Tennessee as he’s essentially gutted the football program from top to bottom to bring in his own people.
So I sit here, with time to look back over the entire list of alleged personality issues that Pruitt has had in the past and think, “So what?”
If you think Pruitt is going to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling when you meet him on the street, I’ve got bad news for you. If you think Pruitt is going to do things the way they’ve been done at Tennessee just because that’s the way things have been done at Tennessee, I’ve got bad news for you.
No, this is not Phillip Fulmer, who mastered being tough when he needed to and accommodating to fans and media when it was called for. However, remember that Fulmer had been an assistant college coach for 20 years before he was named UT’s head coach. Also, remember how different things were in those times. Assistant coaches were often interviewed and took part in community events.
Pruitt has been a college coach for 10 years and seven of those seasons were spent at Alabama, where he was rarely asked to speak to the media or meet with the public.
I first realized that Pruitt would bristle a bit with the public relations aspect of being a coach during the Big Orange Caravan. Pruitt was more at ease at his first caravan stop in Chattanooga than he was at his introductory press conference, but no one confused him with Bob Newhart. Pruitt wasn’t an incredible joy to interview — and he didn’t care.
During his appearance on WGOW, Pruitt admitted that some of the media and fan/booster obligations were a bit more than he expected when he became UT’s head coach. One got the feeling that Pruitt would much rather be drawing up a play or coaching fundamentals than talking to guys like me. That shouldn’t be considered a bad thing.
Of the past three UT coaches, Lane Kiffin wasn’t incredibly engaging with fans. He seemed a bit uncomfortable at times in public settings. No matter. Kiffin is one of the greatest offensive minds in college football and just led Florida Atlantic to a C-USA title. Most thought that could never be done, especially in Kiffin’s first season. Now, Kiffin is much more comfortable with the media and has become a fantastic interview. Like football, dealing with the media and fans takes repetitions.
Former UT coach Derek Dooley seemed comfortable in front of a microphone. He told jokes. He was frank and honest. He was one of the worst coaches I’ve seen in modern-day college football history.
Former Tennessee coach Butch Jones was engaging at community events. There might be more selfies floating around with Jones than there are of the Kardashians. Jones was a gem with fans. He was also one of the worst coaches I’ve seen in modern-day history. Jones also had a reputation for mistreating most of those around him.
Dooley and Jones felt like they’d arrived, that their careers were complete. Winning would be nice, but those two had already accomplished more than their resumes had warranted. Pruitt strikes me as the type of coach who sees the UT job as an opportunity, not a result. Pruitt has everything he needs to win at UT. His result is championships, not having a new fancy business card that says “Head Football Coach.”
I believe Pruitt is a hard-working, focused coach who is determined to win at a high level. However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say Pruitt is, well, a jerk. If so, isn’t that what Tennessee’s football program needs? The Vols have lacked discipline and toughness for most of the past decade. I have no problem with Pruitt rubbing some people the wrong way if he can change the culture at UT.
Tennessee’s athletic department was known for years as a bloated group of entitled employees. Former UT athletic director Dave Hart cleaned up much of that. Maybe there is still some more final touches to be done. I have no question that Pruitt will do everything in his power to finish the job.
When Pruitt’s legacy is written, his time at UT will be judged by wins, losses and championships. If Pruitt can get the Vols to a level in which they compete for the SEC East, that won’t be enough for him. Pruitt couldn’t stand being just a 10-win team at Georgia under Richt. He won’t stand for the same in Knoxville.
So if you meet Pruitt and he’s a bit off-putting, don’t hold it against him. That’s just who he is. If the Vols aren’t winning 10 games, competing for the SEC East, hanging tough in the SEC Championship Game and in the conversation for the College Football Playoff in five years, then that would be a fair beef against Pruitt.
Otherwise, trust that Pruitt is the right person for the job, that he’s tough, driven and not some sort of sociopath. First, I tend to believe that is actually the case. Second, with coaches’ contracts the way they are, what choice do you have?