KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Terry Bowden remembers the challenges from his first year as a head football coach in the SEC, taking over an Auburn program that was on probation and coming off 5-6 and 5-5-1 seasons.
So if anyone can appreciate the challenge Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt has ahead of him, it’s Bowden.
The difference, Bowden told SEC Country, is that Pruitt has a College Football Hall of Fame coach overseeing his progress as the athletic director.
Phillip Fulmer the key
“If Tennessee gets the right coach, they can go all around the country and recruit whoever they want,” Bowden said. “I believe Pruitt is a part of it, but what gives them a chance is that they hired Phil Fulmer as the athletic director.”
Bowden is no stranger to miraculous turnarounds. Now the head coach at Akron, Bowden made a name for himself leading Auburn to an 11-0 record his first season as an SEC head coach in 1993.
The Tigers won their first 20 games under Bowden before a tie with Georgia and loss to Alabama relegated them to a 9-1-1 finish in 1994.
Obviously, no one expects Pruitt to get off to that sort of start for the Vols. The team was recently picked to finish 12th in the SEC by the league’s football information directors.
Big Orange resources
Bowden is a believer that Tennessee has the resources to ultimately get back to the top of the league.
“Phil Fulmer knew what it took to win there, and now as the athletic director he will know what it takes to win and go national,” Bowden aid. “Having him as the AD, I think he could have coached there a long time, but he knows what it takes to compete and what that coach will need to win at Tennessee.
“That’s the ingredient that gives them the chance to get over the top. He knows all the people that have to help, and he can give Jeremy advice.”
Fulmer has shared his vision of how he believes Pruitt will structure the Vols, as a team that will grind out wins with an efficient offense and aggressive defense.
Bowden told SEC Country that he had a similar approach during Auburn’s miraculous 1993 football season.
“What we were trying to do was not lose games we had a chance to win,” said Bowden, whose team relied on a power run game and sound defense. “I didn’t care how we won, just find a way to win. We were very conservative on offense, winning games closely, playing defense and not giving games away.”
Bowden was head coach at Division I-AA Samford in Birmingham from 1987-1992, recruiting Alabama and first spotting Pruitt as a prep standout at Plainview High School.
Bowden noted that players with Pruitt’s football background — “overachievers” — have fared well as coaches.
“Those are the guys who have to work real hard,” said Bowden, a walk-on college running back himself at West Virginia.
“Nick Saban wasn’t a great football player. My dad [Bobby Bowden] recruited him but didn’t offer him because he was too small. Jimbo Fisher was a small college quarterback. I remember Kirby Smart at Georgia, you can see the video, we had a back run over him in ’97.”
Fisher played quarterback for Bowden at Samford and followed him to Auburn as the quarterbacks coach. He went on to coach under Saban — like Smart and Pruitt — and ultimately moved on to Florida State as an assistant and head coach.
Fisher, who will begin his first season as head coach at Texas A&M, said Pruitt did indeed fit the tag of “overachiever” as a high school player.
“I remember Jeremy as a player, I had Jimbo look at him,” Bowden said. “I think Tennessee will just need to make sure they keep up with Alabama with their facilities. They need to stay among the best in the league, and they’ll win there again.”
Indeed, Bowden has seen the Vols at their best, building a 20-7 lead in the 1997 SEC Championship Game before Peyton Manning rallied Tennessee to a 30-29 victory.
“I do remember that game,” Bowden said, “And I believe that was the most talented team they had, not just Manning but with Leonard Little.”
Many would agree, and one year later, the Vols won the national championship despite Little and Manning moving on.
College Football Hall of Fame nominee Al Wilson led the charge from the middle linebacker position. On offense, Tee Martin provided great mobility while a power run game churned out yards and Peerless Price stretched the field at receiver.
“They’ve got that tradition,” Bowden said, “there’s no doubt.”