KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeremy Pruitt is the fifth head football coach at Tennessee in 11 seasons, and even though he might not have been the first choice in what was the mother of dysfunctional coach searches on Rocky Top this past offseason, Pruitt understands unequivocally why he’s here.
“To get Tennessee back to being Tennessee,” Pruitt said.
It’s been a while since “Tennessee was Tennessee.” The Vols were a program-worst 0-8 in SEC play last season and haven’t won an SEC championship in 20 years. In fact, this is the 20th anniversary of their 1998 national championship season, when current athletic director Phillip Fulmer was the head coach. Since his ouster at the end of the 2008 season, Tennessee is 23-49 against SEC teams, 6-37 against nationally ranked teams and 4-23 against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia. For that matter, the Volunteers have lost four of their past six games to Vanderbilt.
So yes, Pruitt faces a Neyland Stadium-sized challenge as Tennessee gets set to open the 2018 season Saturday against No. 17 West Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). But it’s a challenge he’s taken on in vintage bull-in-a-china-shop fashion, a trait that has endeared him that much more to a Tennessee fan base starving for relevance again after watching the Vols wander aimlessly in college football wasteland for much of the past decade.
“Probably the most important thing moving forward this season is that we gotta learn how to win again,” said Pruitt, who’s been a part of five national championship staffs at Alabama and Florida State. “There’s a lot to that. You can practice the right way and create the right habits, but when you get out there in front of 100,000 people and things don’t go your way, being able to keep your poise and fall back on the habits you’ve created and finding a way … that’s something we’ve got to do this fall.”
The Vols won’t get the benefit of a glorified scrimmage, either, to find out where they stand. West Virginia returns quarterback Will Grier, one of the top quarterbacks in college football after passing for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2017, and he has a talented corps of receivers to throw to in Dana Holgorsen’s high-scoring offense.
“Our team is hungry, especially coming off a season like last year,” Tennessee junior linebacker Quart’e Sapp said. “It was a really long offseason, and everybody knows that. But everybody doesn’t know how hard we’ve been working. Nobody came here to lose. Nobody signed a NIL [national letter of intent] to have a season like last year. These guys are ready to compete and lean on Coach Pruitt and move forward.”
Pruitt is the latest Nick Saban protégé to take his shot in the SEC. In fact, half the teams in the league now have a head coach or offensive/defensive coordinator who coached under Saban. In addition to Pruitt at Tennessee, there’s Kirby Smart at Georgia, Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Will Muschamp at South Carolina as head coaches, and Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley.
The best advice Pruitt received in taking over as a first-time head coach in the SEC was from his father, Dale, a longtime high school coach in Alabama.
“To be myself,” recited Pruitt, who is certainly that with his hands-on approach in every aspect of the program. He will call the Vols’ defensive plays this season.
And while Pruitt knows better than to try to be a Saban clone, that doesn’t mean he didn’t take precise notes while working for the guy who’s won five of the past nine national championships.
“Coach [Saban] has actually improved and adapted wherever he’s been,” Pruitt said. “It seems like his teams and his programs continue to kind of rise up to the occasion. It doesn’t matter how the game changes or the rules change, because all the rules, in my opinion, are Coach Saban rules. He adapts and finds a way. You go back and look at it, and he always hires really good people and he’s very thorough in his search and he does a great job in developing coaches and players.
“If you work for him long enough and you can’t take something away from him, then something’s wrong with you.”
Of course, taking something away from Saban and beating him are two different things. Not only do the Vols have to play Alabama every year, but they also have to compete against Saban and the Tide on the recruiting trail. Tennessee has never beaten a Saban-coached Alabama team (11 consecutive defeats), and Saban has also been particularly hard on his former assistants. He’s 12-0 against those head coaches who previously worked under him.
“Yeah, it’ll be fun,” Pruitt said behind a self-assured smile. “It’ll be a challenge. And I think if you looked at all the coaches across the country, they didn’t get to where they are unless they were competitive. All of us think we’re probably the next one. … But whoever it is, we want to beat who’s in front of us.”
Given the whirlwind of instability that has rocked Rocky Top over the past decade, Tennessee fans are hopeful they’ve finally found the man to lead them out of the wilderness.
The players are convinced.
“If you want easy, Coach Pruitt’s not for you,” Tennessee junior receiver Marquez Callaway said. “He tells us all the time, ‘It’s nothing personal. It’s just coaching,’ and that’s going to take us a long way.”
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