Events may prove me wrong about this — it certainly wouldn’t be the first time for that — but assuming it goes through, I think Fulmer’s decision to hire Jeremy Pruitt as UT’s next head coach will be the most fascinating decision to play out in the conference next season. Not for Fulmer’s supposed wish to hire a disciplinarian, either.
No, start with this.
I don’t know that fitting is the word I’d use there. More like making the best of a bad situation, as Vols beat writer Wes Rucker lays out.
There are three ways to attack coaching searches at places like Tennessee. You hire a proven, power-five-conference head coach, an up-and-coming head coach or a proven power-five coordinator.
Option No. 1 didn’t seem to be an option for Tennessee this time. Maybe the Vols didn’t have the financial firepower or the backbone to do that. Maybe they had both of those things, but they couldn’t find anyone willing to take the plunge — which is totally understandable, given the turmoil of the past 25 days in this beautiful mountain town. Even the biggest Tennessee fans should be able to look at those circumstances and understand why a proven, power-five heavy-hitter politely would say, “Thanks but no thanks.”
In reality, the Vols were left with two options. They could take a proven, smaller-conference head coach or a up-and-coming, power-five coordinator.
They went with the former the past two times, and it didn’t work.
So now they’re going with the latter.
All the bravado about how Fulmer was reaching out to head coaches and getting good feedback was nonsense. After the public reaction to the Schiano offer that led to Currie’s abrupt withdrawal, along with Fulmer’s sabotaging of Currie’s handshake deal with Mike Leach, no proven P5 coach was going to risk taking a deal with Tennessee. Like it or not if you’re a Vol fan, Jeremy Pruitt ain’t Jon Gruden. Not even close.
That per se doesn’t make it a bad hire, of course. Pruitt does bring some very attractive features to the table. He’s a relentless recruiter, an excellent evaluator of talent and a top-notch defensive coach, among other things. As we learned at Georgia, though, he’s got a problem with patience when it comes to dealing with administration. How that plays out with an athletic director who’s already made it clear he intends to be hands on with the football program remains to be seen, but I think that Pruitt’s embarking on his fourth job in five years is a clear indication of both his skills and his volatility.
Besides dealing with Fulmer on a daily basis, there are other reasons to think Tennessee will be a more trying venue for Pruitt than any of his other recent stops. For one thing, recruiting at Tennessee is a far more challenging affair than it is at Alabama, where Saban has built a machine, or Georgia and Florida State, where both schools have large pools of local based talent to draw upon. Indeed, Pruitt walked into loaded situations at Alabama and FSU, something that will not be the case in Knoxville.
The other reality Pruitt will be dealing with is the obvious comparison to Kirby Smart, his predecessor at Alabama. Smart won the conference in his second season, and, fair or not, if Pruitt doesn’t strike the same mark, there will be disappointment. It’s going to be a harder job for Pruitt than for Smart. When Smart took over in Athens, the East didn’t have a powerhouse program. Pruitt also doesn’t have the same level of talent walking in that Smart did when he started.
He does have one advantage over Smart, in that he’s not stepping in after a coach popular with much of the fan base was fired. On the other hand, Pruitt has no previous ties to Tennessee, so absent winning, there isn’t a pool of good will for him to draw on if it takes a little time to gain traction.
None of this is to say that Pruitt isn’t talented enough to overcome these challenges. But these are unique pressures escalated by the process that led to Fulmer’s ascendance. There’s a lot of uncharted territory for somebody who’s never run a program before, which, again, is why I think this will be a fascinating exercise to follow.