Back in 2011, Tennessee was upset 10-7 at Kentucky. The defeat kept UT from making an appearance in a bowl game. It snapped the Vols’ 26-game winning streak in the series.

Most everyone knew at that moment that Derek Dooley was completely overmatched, and shouldn’t be the Vols’ head coach.

But Dave Hart, Tennessee’s athletics director for only a few months, wasn’t willing to make a move at that point. In the weeks that followed, only 2 Vols assistant coaches stayed with the program as the rest jumped for other opportunities. Tennessee’s recruiting class was decimated by decommits.

The ship was sinking.

Predictably, 2012 was a mess. Tennessee made an awful hire for defensive coordinator in Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri. They wasted a historically explosive offense, limped to a 5-7 mark, and Dooley was canned with a game to go.

Fast forward to 2016. Tennessee had more than enough talent to win the East but collapsed in the second half of the season. They blew a chance to earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl with an inexcusable loss at Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale.

Some knew at that moment that Butch Jones was overmatched and shouldn’t be the Vols’ head coach.

But Hart had resigned and Tennessee was without an athletics director. The acting AD was Joan Cronan, and she wasn’t about to make a move that significant knowing her time at the top was limited, especially since Jones was on the verge of winning 9 games for the 2nd year in a row.

But Tennessee was saying goodbye to 6 NFL Draft picks, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and Derek Barnett, the Vols’ all-time sacks leader.

Predictably, 2017 was a mess. Jones promoted Larry Scott to offensive coordinator in a move nearly as ill-advised as the Sunseri hire. Quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano weren’t ready to replace Dobbs, and the offense went over 15 quarters without scoring a touchdown.

New AD John Currie dragged his feet for weeks while the Vols were on their way to a 4-8 mark, the worst season in the 120 years of the program. He didn’t want to make a change, knowing that his time clock truly began at Tennessee with the hiring of a new football coach.

Currie finally fired Jones with 2 games to go, then oversaw perhaps the most inept coaching search in the history of college football. Currie was fired, Phillip Fulmer replaced him, and eventually Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt was hired.

Fast forward to the present day. Pruitt is a woeful 15-17 during his nearly 3 years. The Vols have lost 5 straight games. They’ve been outscored by their 3 biggest rivals (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) 348-122 in their 8 meetings, each a Tennessee loss. Only 1 of those games (2019 vs. Alabama) was relatively close in the 4th quarter.

Pruitt and his staff have yet to develop even an average SEC quarterback. Their recruiting class for 2021, once ranked 2nd in the nation, has dropped to 13th following the recent decommits of 5-star linebacker Terrence Lewis (he still says the Vols are his top school) and 4-star cornerback Damarius McGhee, both from Florida.

Tennessee is routinely outcoached and outplayed in the second half of most games. The Vols’ loss to Arkansas, a team with an average roster and a seemingly inferior head coach in Sam Pittman (with UT coming off a bye week no less) brought back memories of the Dooley and Jones regimes.

If what is past is prologue, then there is little reason to believe that Pruitt and this staff can turn things around.

Fulmer, who to this day harbors ill will toward those who dismissed him from the head coaching position at Tennessee in 2008, is trying to give Pruitt every opportunity to keep his job. But the 2-year contract extension Fulmer gave Pruitt in September looks worse by the day. Pruitt is locked in through Jan. 31, 2026.

One argument for keeping Pruitt appears to be from those asking for stability, and it makes sense considering that the Vols have had 5 head coaches in the past 13 seasons. (That’s more than South Carolina and Vanderbilt, which just fired its head coach.)

But the biggest appears to be something that has nothing to do with his coaching ability or lack thereof.

The buyout.

If Tennessee fires Pruitt without cause before early 2021, Pruitt will reportedly be owed $12.6 million (which is less than South Carolina owes Will Muschamp). Factor in his assistants for a few more million and that is a whole lot to pay people not to work during a pandemic. In particular, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney makes $1.6 million coaching one of the worst offenses in the nation.

In the end, paying over $18 million to dismiss Pruitt and his staff, plus whatever amount they’d have to cough up to acquire the next set of incoming coaches, might be too costly. That’s really saying something when you look at all buyout money Tennessee has shelled out for Fulmer, Dooley and Jones and their staffs since 2008, a number that reaches well over $23 million.

Hopefully, Neyland Stadium would be allowed to have the potential to be filled to capacity again in 2021. But if this staff is still in place, and continues as many expect to struggle, I’m not Tennessee can afford not to make a move…

Empty seats helped doom Derek Dooley and Butch Jones.

Will Tennessee wait to see them unfilled for Jeremy Pruitt?