There will be no victory lap here regarding Jeremy Pruitt.
By “here,” I mean in this column. That will in no way extend to all of Tuscaloosa, where the Volunteers, particularly any part of the Orange involving Phil Fulmer, remain unforgiven, no matter how much national championship hardware piles up in the Alabama Trophy Room. (There is a fairly strong argument to be made that a decade of off-field acrimony and on-field struggles against UT forged a strong link in the chain of events that led to Nick Saban becoming the Alabama head coach.)
Plenty of Alabama fans would like to see every Tennessee coaching search, including the imminent one coming in the wake of Pruitt’s firing on Monday, turn out like a moonshiner missing a turn on a foggy mountain road.
The hiring of Pruitt in 2017 came with plenty of red flags. Many media members saw them. Some became involved in the war of words with Tennessee fans over the unraveling of a potential Greg Schiano hire, which devolved so badly that it cost an athletics director, John Currie, his job and brought Fulmer, no doubt with ample booster support, back into power.
The risks were obvious. You didn’t have to be hit across the face with a flounder to see them. There was a narrow path to success for Pruitt, but having known him for more than a decade (and not having a hound dog in the hunt), I gave him the benefit of the doubt. There is no “I told you so” here because I didn’t tell anyone so.
First and foremost, Pruitt was going to have to be mentored. He always has been, going all the way back to his youth with a head coach dad. As an Alabama walk-on under Gene Stallings, he played a bit but was best known as Bill Oliver’s apprentice. (As a total aside, former Stallings’ walk-ons have had a wide range from Dabo-esque success to this mess). There was always a strong guiding hand, whether it was Rush Propst or Jimbo Fisher or Saban.
There have been coordinators who have gone on to success upon being hired in the SEC: Mark Richt, Kirby Smart, Dan Mullen. But Tennessee is a big job, and Pruitt seemed to have been particularly insulated. The gamble was that Fulmer would provide that in Knoxville, but it came to look like Fulmer didn’t want to help someone coach UT as much as he wanted to get back in the saddle himself.
Pruitt recruited well enough, as Fulmer jaw-droppingly noted in a remarkable Monday press conference where Pruitt was being tossed under the bus for recruiting violations that, coincidentally would save UT from a $12.6 million buyout. Just a few months ago, Tennessee was off to a fast recruiting start that gave Pruitt a temporary life preserver until the SEC’s big dogs waded into the pool. Without that, and with a playing style that could best be classified as retro-2013 stubbornness, Pruitt’s chances vanished.
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It is unclear what lies in Pruitt’s future, between likely litigation and NCAA uncertainty. Tennessee’s future seems to be a total rebuild, especially if Fulmer truly lets go. At this point, equaling Alabama is out of reach for many more years, if ever. There will be no new Saban anywhere for a generation.
The goal should be to hang on to a spot in that next tier, catching up to LSU, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn (whose off-season coaching search seems organized in comparison to this chaos) among teams that give Alabama a run for its money from time to time.