Rocky times: Why Tennessee's troubles aren't going away anytime soon
Back on Dec. 19, Tennessee ended its regular season with a 34-13 loss to Texas A&M. At 3-7, it was one of the worst seasons in program history. A trip to the Liberty Bowl was canceled after head coach Jeremy Pruitt and others in the program tested positive for COVID-19.
Since then … Tennessee football has been spiraling out of control.
Vols players are jumping onto the transfer portal like it’s a lifeboat and Tennessee is a sinking ship. Close to 20 players have made their intentions known, and these aren’t just disgruntled student-athletes looking for a place that will offer more playing time.
In the past few days, running back Ty Chandler, the Vols’ 2nd-leading rusher in 2020, announced that he is transferring to North Carolina. Offensive tackle Wayna Morris, a 5-star recruit in the Class of 2019 who has as many as 3 years of eligibility remaining, entered the transfer portal.
In December, quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano (Washington State) and J.T. Shrout (Colorado) and defensive end Deandre Johnson (Miami) left as well.
Yes, Tennessee did get a transfer in Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker, but so far, Tennessee’s roster is looking a lot worse … and it wasn’t very good to begin with.
If there were stability in the coaching staff, maybe there wouldn’t have been as many defections. Jeremy Pruitt is squarely on the hot seat. Tennessee hasn’t had a defensive line coach since Pruitt fired Jimmy Brumbaugh after only 4 games. Tennessee has been without an offensive line coach for a few weeks after Will Friend left for South Carolina (and then Auburn).
If there were an offensive line coach on campus, would Morris have been more inclined to stick around?
Tennessee did make a coaching hire. On Jan. 12, UT announced former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will serve as a “defensive assistant.” Steele, a Tennessee grad and a 2-time Tennessee assistant, brings nearly 4 decades of coaching experience to Knoxville, and they get him on the cheap since Auburn is paying most of his salary.
The buyout life remains undefeated.
But even this move brings some controversy. This is happening while an internal investigation into possible recruiting violations continues. Fulmer knows Steele very well. They were coaches on Johnny Majors’ staff in the 1980s. And don’t forget, Steele was a finalist for the head coaching job at Tennessee when Fulmer hired Pruitt in 2017.
If Pruitt doesn’t survive the internal inquiry, Fulmer would have one of “his guys” in place to take over. Steele would also bring Power 5 head coaching experience to the job (although his 9-36 record in 4 years at Baylor won’t energize the fan base).
While watching all of this take place, I kept thinking about Tennessee under Derek Dooley. In late November 2011, the Vols lost to Kentucky, snapping a 26-game winning streak over the Wildcats. In the weeks that followed after that game, Tennessee’s recruiting class was devastated with decommits. Dooley saw 7 of his 9 assistant coaches flee for other jobs. And while everything was burning to the ground, Dooley famously went 38 days without making public comment, and only did so when athletics director Dave Hart ordered him to speak with the press.
Dooley was playing his fiddle while Knoxville burned. He was fired the following November.
It’s possible Pruitt stays silent under National Signing Day on Feb. 3, and that’s not a good look for a guy trying to get a 4th year at Tennessee. Things are so toxic that any comments likely would be met with skepticism and anger from many Tennessee fans. But Pruitt is the leader of the program. He’s the guy Fulmer tasked with getting Tennessee back to its place among the SEC elite.
The first step might be Pruitt working to get Tennessee fans back on his side, even if that would be an uphill battle.
Because right now, all is not well on Rocky Top.