Less than two weeks after a historically proud program reached an all-time low, the twenty-sixth football coach of the University of Tennessee calmly stepped to the podium and preached unity.
“It starts with everybody that touches the University of Tennessee. From the employees, to the fans, the boosters and especially, the former players. We all have to be positive, we all have to be pulled in one direction, and if we do that and we’re all in, we’re going to get what we want.”
The message from Jeremy Pruitt to Vol Nation was simple but clear: After twelve chaotic and at times seemingly catastrophic days, the time to begin again was here.
Rock, Meet Bottom
Eighty-three days after a season full of high hopes and expectations first began, November 25th saw the Vols welcome cross-town rival Vanderbilt Commodores to town. With an eighth and final loss, UT stared firmly down the barrel of the worst season in its 121 year history. Of an even more sobering note, the once little brother Dores’ sought a fourth win in the past six tries. For historical perspective, the Vols won 28 of the 29 contests between 1982 and 2011.
The game proved an embarrassing and lopsided affair. 42 points and 529 yards later, the Vols only defensive stand came in response to Vandy’s attempt to “plant the flag.”
Vanderbilt tries to plant flag. Words are exchanged. pic.twitter.com/ReBPcYgN02
— Jordan Dajani™ (@JDnumba3) November 26, 2017
The conclusion of the most dysfunctional football season in Vols history came to a sudden and abrupt end. Yet for Vol fans, all was not lost. The 2018 season would feature a new caretaker of Tennessee football. National media and SEC rival fanbase skepticism be damned, Vol fans stubbornly awaited the arrival of a savior. For the UT faithful, new Athletic Director John Currie’s job was simple: hire the Prince That Was Promised, a Mr. Jon David Gruden.
“Dude, We Just Hired Greg Schiano”
As a lifelong fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, I can remember where I was for some of the highs (e.g., the 98 ship’, Wilhoit’s 50 yarder to beat Florida in 2004, the comeback from 21 down to beat LSU in a postponed game from Katrina in 2005) and the bad (2001 heartbreak in the SEC Championship to Matty Fucky Mauck, Chris Leak to Dallas Baker in the 4th in 2006, and the entire Derek Dooley era). All memories considered, nothing could have prepared me mentally or emotionally for the text I received from my brother a mere one day after the season-ending loss to Vanderbilt.
Dude, We Just Hired Greg Schiano
Not possible, I thought. John Currie couldn’t be that naive, right? Not after proclaiming Tennessee would “conduct an exhaustive search to identify a coach of the highest integrity and vision to propel Tennessee to championships.” What Athletic Director in their right mind would hire a guy who had won approximately zero championships as a head coach, flamed out in colossal failure as NFL head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a near-player mutiny, and was named by disgraced former Penn State Assistant Mike McQueary as a witness to Jerry Sandusky’s acts of pedophilia in a 2016 deposition. Surely John Currie wasn’t that stupid. . .
A purported $27.7 million offer and John Currie signed MOU later, the man WAS that stupid. But then something beautiful happened. Tennessee fans refused mediocrity, stood up, and didn’t just say SchiaNO — try a resounding FUCK NO. From fan protests to state representatives and political candidates’ (former Pro Wrestler KANE, anyone) displeasure, the vitriol directed at the University’s tone-deaf decision gave Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport and President Joe DiPietro pause. This pause ultimately decided in a revocation of the offer at the deal’s twelfth hour.
Yeah, the media excoriated the UT fanbase. According to the Pat Fordes and Stephen A Smiths, the UT fanbase was made up of delusional rednecks. But dammnit, y’all, we were UNITED rednecks.
Currie Goes Rogue
The fall-out from Schiano’s failed hiring proved swift. After “thanks, but no thanks” from Duke coach David Cutcliff, mullet-wearing Mike Gundy (who should at least send a UT a Christmas gift basket after his flirtations got him a raise for the second time in 6 years), Purdue Coach Jeff Brohm, and North Carolina State Coach Dave Doeren (all while Wolfpack fans pined for his firing), Currie tumultuous week on the road neared its end. Except, it didn’t. Like any great tragedy full of multiple acts, one death-blow remained.
Doeren’s rejection prompted a now-desperate Currie to frantically try to seize control of the situation. With seemingly no green light from the decision-makers in Knoxville, Currie took a trip out to see the Pirate himself, Washington State coach and raccoon-loving Mike Leach. Similar to the Schiano deal, Currie attempted to ram through an agreement via a signed MOU with Leach. Noticeably absent from such a deal was the needed signatures of Davenport and DiPietro. The Chancellor and President had seen enough. They refused to sign, pulled Currie from the road, and ousted him Friday morning. Five days after Greg Schiano came within a hair of coaching the Vols, Tennessee turned to the man who last led them to national prominence and glory.
Fulmer Puts an End to the Chaos
After the announcement of his hire as new Athletic Director of Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer acted decisively. In New York for the enshrinement of Vols legend Peyton Manning into the College Football Hall of Fame, the former coach of the Vols narrowed his focus to three: former Vol assistant and current Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele, Georgia Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker, and Alabama Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. On the evening of December 6, news broke of an imminent hiring. Fulmer had his man. Jeremy Pruitt had a six-year, $3.8 million a year deal.
The two-time recruiter of the year, Pruitt track record as a defensive coordinator spoke for itself: defensive backs’ coach of the back-to-back title winning Alabama in 2011 and 2012, DC of the 2013 National Champion Florida State Seminoles (overseeing a defense that saw 10 of 11 starters get drafted), and a brief stint at Georgia as DC prior to his return to Alabama. For most UT fans, Pruitt’s hire as a first-time coach was a risk well worth the possible reward.
A New Era
As Tupac Shakur once said, “Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that.” For the Big Orange Faithful, the 2017 Tennessee coaching search featured far too many dark nights. Yet at the end of the day, hope abounds for arguably the most championship-deprived fanbase for a brighter day. Only time will tell. Until then, fans aren’t likely to forget the year 2017, forever memorialized as “The UT Coaching Clusterfuck” (for the dismal, historically bad record and the chaos of the coaching search that shortly ensued).
(Banner Photo credit to UTSports.com)