Jeremy Pruitt's Tennessee football tenure always was going to end poorly | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee’s 2019 football season had just kicked off. Right away, you could tell something was amiss.

Former UT sports information director Bud Ford, who was sitting next to me in the press box, pointed to a gaping pre-snap hole in Tennessee’s defensive front and said something like, “Well, that’s where they’re going to run.”

He was referring to the Georgia State Panthers, whose football program was all of 10 years old and was tabbed by some preseason publications to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference.

Sure enough, the Panthers ran exactly where Ford said they would. Then, they ran there again. And again.

UT was starting an all-new defensive front, so you could expect a few alignment issues. But you also would expect a coach with Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive reputation to resolve them swiftly.

He never did. The result: A stunning Tennessee loss to a 25-point underdog.

A week later, UT seemingly had a game in hand against BYU. But in the final minute of regulation play, secondary breakdowns doomed the Vols to overtime and a second consecutive loss.

Eventually, the Vols shrugged off the upset losses and a 2-5 start as well. They ended Pruitt’s second season on a six-game winning streak with an 8-5 record.

But the losses to Georgia State and BYU told you more about Pruitt’s program than the six-game winning streak or the 8-5 record.

As bad as Pruitt's program was, you didn't realize how bad until UT announced Monday that he had been fired for cause. The university's internal investigation revealed that Pruitt and members of his staff had committed serious NCAA violations.

WHAT'S IT MEAN? Level I and Level II violations explained

His failure to revitalize Tennessee's defense was the first sign that athletics director Phillip Fulmer didn't get what he bargained for when he hired Pruitt three years ago. 

Pruitt's supposed defensive expertise often wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard. Alabama scored 58 points and Missouri scored 50 on the Vols in 2018, Pruitt’s first season.

In his second season, Georgia State and BYU combined for 67 points, and Florida, Georgia and Alabama averaged 37.3 points.

In his third and final season, with an experienced defense returning, five teams scored more than 30 points. Alabama, Florida and Georgia upped their production over the previous season with a 41-point average.

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Pruitt had three years to build a competent defense and couldn’t pull it off. About the nicest thing you could say of Pruitt’s defense: It was better than his offense.

In nine losses to Tennessee's biggest rivals — Georgia, Alabama and Florida — it never came close to winning. And it never scored more than 21 points.

Pruitt also seemed at a loss when it came to quarterbacks, none of whom have developed significantly on his watch. Jarrett Guarantano was just good enough to hold his starting position for most of three seasons, but how much did he really improve?

Pruitt started three different quarterbacks in 2019 but always turned back to Guarantano. In 2020, he stuck with Guarantano through thick and thin until thin had faded to 2-5. Pruitt then alternated J.T. Shrout and Harrison Bailey against Florida and Vanderbilt as if those games were preseason scrimmages and he was trying to decide on his No. 1 quarterback for the opener.

Pruitt’s hiring wasn’t much better than his coaching. Assistants came and went for three seasons. You could argue that the Vols had the most overpaid staff in the country.

Nonetheless, despite all the shortcomings, Pruitt succeeded — as virtually all Tennessee coaches do — at recruiting. His four classes all made the top 25 in the 247Sports Composite.

The recruiting wasn’t enough to convince you the program was headed in the right direction. Just as recruits often failed to play up to expectations under former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, they also underachieved under Pruitt.

Pruitt will be remembered more for losses on the field than success in recruiting. But even the recruiting success is now tainted by the NCAA violations UT uncovered in its investigation.

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You didn't need an internal investigation to reveal something was wrong on the field.

The Georgia State loss was arguably the worst in school history. The 34-7 loss to Kentucky was UT’s worst in the series since 1935.

The lopsided losses to Georgia, Florida and Alabama also were jarring to the fan base. The Vols were just as overmatched against those rivals in Pruitt’s third season as they were in his first.

That’s why his “closing-the-gap” line in the press conference after a 48-17 loss to Alabama this season was cringeworthy.

He couldn’t even close the gap on Jones, much less Alabama. Jones was 21-17 after three seasons. Pruitt finished 16-19.

In fact, Pruitt’s record is only slightly better than Jones’ predecessor, Derek Dooley, who was fired in 2012 after three consecutive losing seasons. Dooley’s record was 15-21.

Dooley accomplished that against tougher schedules than Pruitt faced. Dooley’s teams played 15 nationally ranked teams in three seasons.

Perhaps, you believe that three years isn’t enough time to turn around a program. Yet you see turnarounds being executed even faster at some schools. To give a coach more time, you need to believe he has potential for bigger and better things. Moreover, you need to know he's running a clean program.

There was no evidence of that with Pruitt. 

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com.