KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has hired Jeremy Pruitt to become its next football coach, ending a 26-day search filled with drama and controversy.
Pruitt leaves his post as Alabama defensive coordinator, a title he has held since being hired onto Nick Saban’s staff for a second tour with the Tide in 2016, having also worked in Tuscaloosa on staff from 2007-12. He becomes the 25th head coach in Volunteers history.
Tennessee has 13 days to salvage early signees in its 2018 recruiting class, and Pruitt will need to be on point this weekend with several Vols commits and prospects coming to Knoxville on official visits.
The new early signing period runs from Dec. 20-23, and Tennessee hopes to have at least a dozen early signees, most of whom are expected to enroll in January.
Pruitt’s challenge will be even more difficult when one considers he will continue to coach Alabama through the College Football Playoff as part of his deal.
Vols fans are surely ready to start rooting for players again instead of coaching candidates, following the embarrassing end to the tenure of former athletic director John Currie.
Several coaches were rumored to be bound for Rocky Top as the search process transpired, and the controversial attempted hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano on Nov. 26 caused backlash of historic proportion. Fans unleashed a torrent of objection on social media and staged an on-campus protest that Sunday afternoon, causing Tennessee to reverse course and cut ties with Schiano.
A panicked reaction ensued, with Currie fruitlessly chasing Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren in subsequent days. Finally, an unapproved trip to Los Angeles for a meeting with Washington State coach Mike Leach backfired on Currie, who was summoned back to Knoxville and fired by chancellor Beverly Davenport on Dec. 1.
Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer, who has served as an adviser to school president Joe DiPietro since June, replaced Currie that same day. In an ironic twist, it was Currie, an assistant to then-AD Mike Hamilton, calling on boosters for money to buy out Fulmer’s coaching contract in 2008.
The past, however, quickly took a back seat to a coaching search that had become a spectacle right up until Pruitt was finally hired.
Players from the Vols’ 1998 championship team, most notably team captain Al Wilson, championed former teammate and current Southern California offensive coordinator Tee Martin. A number of observers and fans questioned why Currie and Vols legend Peyton Manning, who was initially involved in the search, didn’t call Martin or consider him for a position on the new staff.
Fulmer called Martin on Tuesday to discuss the head coaching position, but there was no formal interview.
While attending Peyton Manning’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York, Fulmer worked the phones and narrowed the search to four prominent defensive coordinators after SMU’s Chad Morris decided to take the Arkansas job.
Finally, after Clemson’s Brent Venables withdrew from consideration in the final days, Pruitt, Auburn’s Kevin Steele and Georgia’s Mel Tucker were the last candidates standing.
That list was a far cry from Nov. 12, when former coach Butch Jones was fired and top coaches such as Jimbo Fisher, Jon Gruden, Chip Kelly, Dan Mullen and Scott Frost were mentioned as possibilities.
The Vols job, it turned out, wasn’t as attractive as many Big Orange fans believed.
Tennessee hasn’t finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll since the 2001 season. Additionally, opponents have caught up to the Vols in terms of facilities, as television contract money has leveled the playing field. The amount of high school talent in Tennessee has improved as Middle Tennessee has grown, but it’s not to the level of SEC states such as Florida, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.
The Vols return eight of 11 starters on offense and seven of 11 starters on defense, but freshman offensive lineman Trey Smith was the only player on the team to earn All-SEC honors, as a second-team pick on the AP and coaches team.
Jeremy Pruitt coaching résumé:
|2001-03||Fort Payne HS||Asst.|
|* Director of player development|
|^ Student assistant coach|
Jeremy Pruitt national rankings as defensive coordinator:
|Year||Pts rank||PPG||Yds rank||YPG|
|* Defensive coordinator at Alabama|
|** Defensive coordinator at Georgia|
|^ Defensive coordinator at Florida State|