KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Nobody knows how many football games Tennessee is going to win during the 2018 season. The best guess from the boys in Vegas puts the over/under for the Vols at 5.5 victories. Given a schedule that includes West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, and South Carolina that number might not be too far off.
But right now it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Because right now Tennessee football has some things it hasn’t had in a while:
And most importantly, NO drama.
The University of Tennessee football program was the international capital of drama for several months in 2017. Here is the Cliffs Notes version of what happened:
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**--After a 50-17 loss at Missouri on Nov. 11, Butch Jones was fired before he could complete his fifth season in Knoxville.
**--A bizarre and sometimes embarrassing coaching search that included false sightings of Jon Gruden and a less-than-wholesome fan backlash after Ohio State DC Greg Schiano was offered the job.
**--Tennessee had to publicly take back the offer to Schiano, opening the school up to potential legal problems.
**--Athletics director John Currie, who had been on the job only eight months, was summoned home off the road and dismissed.
**--Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer, who had come in second for the AD job to Currie, was installed and put in charge of the coaching search on Dec. 2.
**--Five days later Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator at Alabama, was hired as Tennessee’s head football coach.
**--Pruitt, who was part of five national championships at Alabama and Florida State, will conclude his first Spring practice as Tennessee’s head coach with Saturday’s Orange and White game.
What will be the mood on Saturday at Neyland Stadium? It should be one of relief. Fulmer believes Tennessee fans are realistic but optimistic about the future.
“Our people understand that we have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be,” said Fulmer, as we sat in his office at the Anderson Training Center. “It has been a tough time but we will be back.”
Now understand that if Tennessee’s fans wanted a head coach who was the polar opposite of Butch Jones, they got it in Pruitt.
Jones was big on motivational techniques and symbolism. On national signing day each new Volunteer was represented by a real, honest-to-goodness brick, to symbolize the building of the program “brick-by-brick.” Each spring practice had a theme such as “DAT” for “Discipline, Accountability, and Toughness.” Signs, wristbands, you name it and Tennessee had it.
All of these devices are fine, and even fun, when a team is winning. But when it’s not, these things, fairly or not, quickly become the butt of jokes and derision on the talk shows and social media.
You’re not going to see a whole lot of motivational devices in Jeremy Pruitt’s camp. That’s because, given what these Tennessee players have gone through, motivation is not going to be an issue. Pruitt has made that clear.
“This guy,” a person close to the program told me, “is all ball.”
“We’ve got guys who are hungry for success,” said Pruitt, the son of a high school coach, who has worked at Alabama (twice), Florida State, and Georgia. “They want to find a way and so they have bought into what we’re selling. It��s hard to be confident you go 4-8 (0-8 SEC).”
Those who have followed Pruitt’s career know that he has an edge about him. He wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers of his fellow assistant coaches during staff meetings. When Pruitt was at Georgia, he was outspoken in his belief that the absence of an indoor practice facility was hurting the Bulldogs in recruiting.
“They got it done in seven months at Florida State,” Pruitt told The Athens Banner-Herald newspaper.
It is an edge, several people close to the program told me, that is much needed.
Pruitt’s belief is that the only way for players to get better and gain confidence is to practice hard and practice fast. He believes there is a certain “pop” when teams are practicing the way they should. And he says that Tennessee isn’t there yet.
“If you’re going to be successful in this league you have to practice fast and have people running into people fast,” said Pruitt. “You might not know exactly what to do but if you are a tackler you need to arrive at the ball with bad intentions.”
Accountability is a big thing with Pruitt. Everybody, including the head coach, has to be held accountable for what they do—or don’t do.
Body language is important to Pruitt. He believes teams give the opponent an advantage with bad body language after a play does not go well.
“Your demeanor—good or bad—is important. You can’t let the last play negatively impact the next play,” said Pruitt, who has been known to call out players for bad body language during a practice.
And the rule applies to him as well. Earlier this spring he threw out the first pitch at a Tennessee baseball game. He didn’t get close to home plate and hung his head just a little as he walked off the field. His wife, Casey, called him immediately:
“Hey Coach Pruitt.”
“If you’re going to preach about body language why don’t you get it straightened up yourself?”
Pruitt loves to tell that story.
“She set me straight,” he said.
Here is one more reason for Tennessee fans to be optimistic about the future. With Fulmer in the athletics director’s chair, Pruitt has an ally who understands what he is going through. When Pruitt wanted to remain at Alabama through the CFP national championship game, Fulmer was able to help in recruiting and take a lot of PR stuff off of his plate.
“We have a lot of really good guys on our staff but there is nobody on our staff who has been a sitting head coach,” said Pruitt when asked about Fulmer. “It is great when I need to bounce something off him that he’s just down the hall.”
Pruitt sees Fulmer as a resource many other coaches don’t have.
“I don’t have an ego. He and I want the same things,” said Pruitt. “And I told him ‘Coach, if you have something that will help us win games don’t worry about stepping on my toes.’
“Remember, he did it (as a head coach) for 16 years. I’ve done it for zero.”
For most of Fulmer’s 16 years as Tennessee’s head coach, he had a former coach, Doug Dickey, as an athletics director.
“It made a difference,” said Fulmer. “A big difference.”