Would the Vols be in this colossal mess if they hadn't fired Butch Jones ... or hired Greg Schiano?
As Tennessee embarks on yet another coaching search, you wonder how we got to this point. Since firing Phil Fulmer in 2008, the Vols have had 4 head coaches (not counting interims) with a 5th on the way.
The results of that instability are no surprise. Tennessee’s record over the past 13 years is 78-82, with a dreadful 4-35 mark against their biggest rivals (Alabama, Florida, Georgia).
Jeremy Pruitt added to that ineptitude with a 16-19 record and zero wins against the Big 3. He also leaves Tennessee with what will likely be NCAA sanctions from alleged recruiting violations.
The Pruitt era only happened because Tennessee fired Butch Jones and then backed out of a deal with Greg Schiano. Considering what a mess the UT football program is right now — did anybody else transfer while I was typing this sentence? — it’s more than fair to ask 2 tough, related questions.
Did the Vols give up on Jones too soon? Should Tennessee have hired Schiano?
Let’s start with Jones. Jones was fired with a 34-27 record in almost 5 seasons at UT. The Vols won 3 bowl games. Tennessee won 9 games in consecutive seasons. He won more games in his first 4 seasons (30) than Fulmer did in his final 4 seasons (29).
On paper, that’s not too bad!
But the moment Florida clinched the 2016 SEC East title, the Butch Jones era was over, even if he was in place for another year.
Tennessee had the most talent in the SEC East in 2015 and 2016. Georgia had undergone a coaching change and Florida was in the middle of the uncomfortable Jim McElwain era. It was all lined up for the Vols to succeed, but UT couldn’t win the division either year. In 2016, the Vols beat Florida and Georgia — and still failed to hang a banner.
“I thought 2016 was their best shot and they got decimated by injury,” former Tennessee assistant coach Mark Elder told me. “Butch needed that year for Atlanta because I could have told you 2017 was gonna be a problem. You lost a bunch of players at the same time. He needed to get to Atlanta to have a forgiveness card. It just was not the year that quite gave him the pass. Everyone thought the writing was on the wall.”
Following the 2016 season, Tennessee lost 6 key players to the NFL Draft, including defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara and quarterback Josh Dobbs. The players Butch Jones brought to Knoxville, including quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, weren’t ready to fill the void.
“In the SEC that happens every year,” former Tennessee assistant coach Zach Azzanni said. “To be a top-5 program, the guys you recruit have to step up. If you recruit worse, you’ll be worse. Ty Chandler has to be as good as Alvin Kamara. That’s why recruiting is so vital.”
And with Tennessee struggling in 2017, their recruiting class collapsed as well. Things were getting worse, not better.
In my opinion, firing Jones was the right move. If they weren’t going to win the East in 2015 or 2016, I don’t think they were ever going to win it under Jones.
That leads us to Nov. 26, 2017 … what has become known as “Schiano Sunday.” Tennessee’s attempt to hire Schiano, then Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, was squashed by an uprising that involved Vols fans, alums, boosters, former players and even state politicians.
There are a lot of reasons people didn’t like the hire. Much like Jones wilted under the pressure that comes with the Tennessee job, Schiano would have been challenged in the Knoxville market, which covers the football team 24/7 and 365 days a year. Like Jones, Schiano was a hothead with thin skin. He got woeful Rutgers into the national rankings, but that also happened at a time when the Big East had lost Miami and Virginia Tech. Schiano had no experience coaching in the SEC.
Schiano’s loose connections to the Sandusky scandal at Penn State were the biggest reason the hiring was questioned. It has never been proven that Schiano was aware of Sandusky’s crimes. But remember, in late 2016 Tennessee was still a little over a year removed from the settling of a well-publicized Title IX lawsuit. Bringing in someone with even the slightest hint of scandal should have given Tennessee reason for pause.
In my opinion, Tennessee was wise to not hire Schiano. From a PR standpoint alone, it would have been a nightmare. From a football point of view, he wasn’t a good fit at all.
He had a rough 2 years as Tampa Bay’s head coach in the NFL, going 11-21. But the biggest issue might have been Schiano’s relationship with his players.
Tennessee prides itself on being a school that sends guys to the pros. Walk into the football complex and you’ll see alums who made it to the NFL recognized on the walls. But Schiano was well known for treating NFL scouts with disdain. “At Rutgers, it was a really unpleasant day,” sportswriter Mike Silver wrote. “You were made to feel like an outsider, like you weren’t welcome. And everyone was scared to talk to you.” That’s obviously not a great thing for guys trying to take that next step in their careers.
In terms of how he treated his players, some former Buccaneers compared life under Schiano like “being in Cuba” due to his authoritarian ways. “One of the keys to a great coach is adapting,” sportswriter Mike Freeman wrote. “I have never seen a locker room turn so quickly against a coach. The players hated him.”
It’s worth noting that since leaving Tampa Bay, Schiano succeeded at Ohio State and now is back at Rutgers, where he had a better record in Year 1 than Pruitt did in Year 3.
Did the Jeremy Pruitt hire work out? No. No it did not.
That doesn’t mean they should have kept Jones or brought in Schiano.