It's early, but Jeremy Pruitt's approach to fixing Tennessee looks like the right one
Jeremy Pruitt has a total of zero pregame speeches, zero fourth-down decisions, zero starting quarterback announcements and zero postgame press conferences as a head coach. He hasn’t been there yet, and only time will tell how he approaches each of those things as the new leader in Knoxville.
But so far, Pruitt’s approach looks like it’s right on the money.
We’ve been getting evidence of that every few days it seems. Between his hiring of a coaching staff to his decision on Tennessee’s “Smokey Greys,” Pruitt is not coming off as a first-year head coach. If anything, he’s looks more like Marcus Lemonis from the show “The Profit,” which is exactly what Tennessee needs right now.
Pruitt was hired to get the Vols back on track after they went completely off the rails the last year. A culture makeover was needed. Former players came out and said exactly that.
Not that they needed to.
The disconnect between players and a coaching staff was evident, perhaps most notably with the handling of the Jauan Jennings situation.
It would’ve been easy for Pruitt to try and win some early support by automatically re-instating Jennings after his profanity-laced rant against the previous coaching staff resulted in his dismissal. There are plenty of Vols fans hoping that Jennings will be there to catch passes for whoever Tennessee’s next starting quarterback is.
And on the flip side, Pruitt could have decided that he was going to convey his harsh disciplinarian demeanor and take a strong stance by not allowing Jennings to rejoin the team. Those begging for a culture change would have appreciated that, and it would have furthered established Pruitt as the man in charge.
Instead, Pruitt put it on Jennings to earn the new coaching staff’s trust.
“I’ll say this: Jauan knows he made a mistake. He’s embarrassed by it, and I think we’re going to give him an opportunity in-house to find his way back on the team,” Pruitt said via 247sports. “But — and there’s always a but with it, right? — he’s got to do that. There ain’t going to be nothing given to him and he knows that. It’s a long ways to go and we’ll see. Hopefully he can do that.”
Man, I love that answer.
Pruitt might not understand asparagus, but he understands that millennials have more platforms to make mistakes like the one Jennings made. That doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. But it also means that one regrettable tirade shouldn’t put a brick wall in front of his future.
Besides opening the door for players to return to the program, Pruitt also did that with his assistants. In addition to having Terry Fair back in Knoxville as the cornerbacks coach, Pruitt also brought back former Vol players Kevin Simon and Montario Hardesty to work on his staff.
A sight like this had to be a breath of fresh air for Tennessee fans:
Three former Vols back on campus and working on Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee — Terry Fair, Kevin Simon and Montario Hardesty. pic.twitter.com/h8U6QpdcJm
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) February 7, 2018
Pruitt’s hires show that he isn’t coming in with a know-it-all attitude because he worked under guys like Nick Saban, Mark Richt and Jimbo Fisher. That’s why Tyson Helton is making a reported $1.2 million as Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator. That’s nearly double what Larry Scott made as the offensive coordinator last year.
To me, that says that Pruitt recognized how badly Tennessee’s offense needed an overhaul. Did the $1.2 million seem a bit steep for someone without experience as a Power 5 coordinator? Yes, but if Helton is the guy who can resurrect the offense, $1.2 million is a small price to pay.
Pruitt’s early moves demonstrated an important balance that one needs to have at a big-time program like Tennessee. You can’t be arrogant like Jim McElwain and turn down help from Steve Spurrier, but you have to do things your way.
It’s not as easy as it looks. Pruitt cannot simply be Phillip Fulmer’s puppet, nor can he make his decisions based entirely on fan response.
There’s a difference between hearing a fan base and submitting to the fan base. Pruitt didn’t submit to the Tennessee fans who claimed that the Smokey Greys gave them a recruiting advantage. Not wearing them was his way of saying gimmicks won’t turn around the program. He saw how much those uniforms mattered when Tennessee battled against the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Georgia. And in Pruitt’s eyes, the bad outweighed the good in terms of Tennessee’s brand.
The way Pruitt is doing business has to be making Tennessee traditionalists happy. After all, a football program is a business. His predecessor didn’t always embody that.
Pruitt, on the other hand, seems ready to be the CEO of the Tennessee football program. You won’t see him spin-zoning his way out of a tough question with a “champions of life” reference. In the coming months, you should expect to see a guy who knows what an actual winning culture looks like.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if Pruitt can handle all of the rigors that first-time coaches have to adjust to. He’ll continue to develop his own identity and leave his own mark on the program.
Hopefully that doesn’t involve a trash can.