I was having lunch with my friend, Michael Greene, a 3-time Tennessee grad, and his wife, Elizabeth, a 2-time Tennessee grad, soon after the news broke Monday that Tennessee had fired Jeremy Pruitt as its football coach. At one point, lamenting the most recent bad news about Tennessee’s football program, Michael said to me, “It was supposed to be different this time …

Yes. Yes, it was.

After the debacle known as Schiano Sunday in November 2017, Tennessee eventually fired John Currie as athletics director and replaced him with former UT head coach Phillip Fulmer.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more “Tennessee” than Phillip Fulmer. Born and raised in the state, he spent 34 of the first 40 years of his adult life as a Vols football player, assistant coach or head coach, until he was fired in 2008. Fulmer won over 150 games, including 2 SEC titles and the Vols’ first consensus national championship in 47 years. His dismissal hurts him to this day.

Nine years later, he was Wyatt Earp, riding back into town to return order to an athletics program and a university that had lost its way. Tennessee had brought in too many outsiders. There were people in positions of power in that athletics department who were more concerned with their career and not the greater mission of returning Tennessee football to its rightful place among the SEC’s elite. The hiring of Fulmer gave long time staffers and thousands of Vols fans confidence that the dark days were over.

It was supposed to be different this time …

Fulmer was immediately tasked with finding a new football coach, and in late 2017 the pickings were barren, especially for a program that was a complete dumpster fire. Fulmer settled on a final 3 of Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Fulmer picked Pruitt.

This wasn’t Mike Hamilton panicking after Lane Kiffin bolted in 2010 and hiring a woefully unqualified Derek Dooley. Nor was it Dave Hart in 2012, hiring Butch Jones after Hart was turned down by Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong. This was Fulmer, a football lifer and a true Tennessean knowing what it was going to take to get Tennessee football back on track.

After 2 seasons, the ship appeared to be righted. Pruitt won 5 games in 2019 and then 8 games in 2019, including the Gator Bowl. The Vols were recruiting well, and riding a 6-game winning streak into the 2020 season.

At a recruiting celebration stop last February, the normally reserved Fulmer couldn’t help himself.

“The Vols are back,” he said. “And before long, we’ll be taking a bite out of everybody we play’s ass.”

A few months later, in September, Pruitt was given a raise and a 2-year contract extension. Fulmer was given a contract extension as well. Life was good on Rocky Top.

It was supposed to be different this time …

After wins over South Carolina and Missouri to start the season, the bottom fell out. The Vols lost 7 of their final 8 games, each by double digits. Tennessee’s only victory was against a Vanderbilt team that went 0-9.

Pruitt’s record was 16-19.  Player development was next to non-existent. Recruits were decommitting. Assistant coaches were bolting. The transfer portal was filled with Tennessee players. Pruitt was on the hot seat before any talk of an internal investigation into recruiting violations.

On Jan. 18, the bottom finally dropped out. In a termination letter sent to Pruitt and signed by UT Chancellor Donde Plowman and Fulmer, it stated, “Your failure to promote and maintain an atmosphere of compliance and to monitor the activities of the coaches and staff members that report, directly or indirectly, to you has led to the current NCAA investigation and is bringing and will likely continue to bring the University into considerable public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal, and/or ridicule …”

That investigation brought forth enough violations that Tennessee expects to dismiss Pruitt without paying him any of his buyout, which lands over $12 million. Pruitt was fired with cause, along with assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel and a football analyst/quality control coach.

Pruitt (and his super agent, Jimmy Sexton) will fight to get a good chunk of that money back so Pruitt can live the buyout life, but the damage is done. Pruitt’s reputation is shot, and it’ll be a while before he gets another Power 5 head coaching job, if that ever happens. A more plausible landing spot is returning to his roots as a defensive coordinator.

Fulmer’s reputation took a serious blow as well. He said that he is retiring, and hiring the next head coach will be the responsibility of the next AD. But it wasn’t long ago that Fulmer had agreed to a contract extension. He didn’t want to go anywhere. But now he will have to pack up his desk.

Tennessee will begin the search for a new AD. That person will then be tasked with hiring a head coach, Tennessee’s 5th since the end of the 2008 season. And with the likelihood of NCAA punishment looming, things are going to get worse before they get better.

It was supposed to be different this time …