Perhaps you’ve heard, it’s been a heckuva day up on Rocky Top.
Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt, two assistants (outside linebackers coach/former Crisp County head coach Shelton Felton and inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer), and several other staffers were fired following an internal investigation that found far-reaching recruiting violations and determined that Pruitt failed to maintain an environment of compliance. Athletic Director Phil Fulmer was allowed to bow out voluntarily because he did not have knowledge of the violations until they were brought to his attention in November. You know, right after Tennessee embarked on the epic losing streak that consumed their season. Tres convenient.
It is difficult to say which is more unbelievable: that Phil Fulmer was indeed unaware of the alleged widespread wrongdoing in the football program for which he was ultimately responsible, and is therefore a raging incompetent, a blind man blissfully riding on a burning steam engine. Or, and this is the theory lots of people smarter than me have landed on, that he was aware of it and decided to pull the ripcord when those allegations became convenient to serve a higher purpose, only to then have the fire he was tending get wildly out of control in true hillbilly fashion.
The whole thing is frankly a bit surreal. Fulmer and a host of other university officials rose to the podium at a press conference today and solemnly proceeded to throw Jeremy Pruitt and his staff under the bus, only to drag him back out and throw him under again for what they termed rampant recruiting violations. In the same breath the Great Pumpkin also said this:
Fulmer: This program was in quite a mess three years ago when we arrived. I think we improved the roster. I think we improved relationships with the university.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) January 18, 2021
In other words, there was a lot of cheating that went into putting this roster together, and we’re sorry for that. But not as sorry as we’d have been without it.
Cognitive dissonance, like dental hygiene and evolution, remain elusive concepts north of Chattanooga.
Let’s be clear about one thing. I’m a card-carrying member of Team Pay the Players. When Todd Gurley was raked over the coals by the NCAA for having the gall to write his own name and accept money for it, I was angry not at Gurley for breaking the rules but at UGA administrators who (publicly at least) did absolutely nothing to come to his defense or attempt to mitigate the resulting punishment.
That said, it should be obvious what is going on here. Tennessee is avoiding a buyout, nothing more, nothing less. Call it “the Kansas Plan.” Need to fire your football coach? Don’t really have the money to pay the large buyout you literally just gave him? Then it’s time to start prospecting for dirt.
Jeremy Pruitt finished 3-7 this season and stood like a giant human thumb at the bow of a football ship going nowhere fast. Let’s cut through the margarine: no one with decision-making authority in the Tennessee Volunteer football program is really mad that Jeremy Pruitt was cheating. They are mad that his cheating didn’t produce more wins.
And yes, they probably wish he hadn’t been quite so much of a pain in the neck sometimes. As a college football coach you can get away with all sorts of things as long as you’re winning football games and the people you interact with around the football offices, university, and local community genuinely like you personally. It’s like a cheat code for people occasionally caught cheating.
I for one take a great deal of joy in the fact that Lane Kiffin remains likely the best football coach Tennessee has hired since the SEC split into divisions in 1992. Perhaps it says something about the Lane Train that he ran from Knoxville under cover of night at the first available opportunity. I feel confident saying that Kiffin would not give the job a second look now. Nor frankly well a lot of up-and-coming coaching candidates if they have other options.
Tennessee is a football program in disarray, and has been in various shades and stages of disarray for over a decade now.
The number of national football writers still arguing that Tennessee is a top shelf coaching job is just astounding. You have to play Bama, Georgia, and Florida annually without anything approaching their recruiting bases. The Fulmer era was the apex, not the average.
Expecting Tennessee football to get Alabama results is like expecting Luxembourg to produce the GDP of China. The predicate parts simply aren’t there. If you go by 247sports rankings the state of Tennessee has produced a grand total of 15 four-star prospects in the past two recruiting cycles. Georgia produced 54. Along with 8 five star players, something that hasn’t come out of the Volunteer State in three years. The state produced fewer blue chip football players than Alabama, Florida, or North Carolina as well.
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Clemson, and Tennessee can all be good at football. But they cannot all be good at football at the same time. There simply aren’t enough blue chip recruits to go around. Certainly not when Alabama and Georgia are gobbling up talent at a historic rate. Throw in a resurgent North Carolina Tar Heels program and Tennessee has spent the better part of a decade struggling to consistently recruit an SEC quality roster. Nothing that happened today points to that changing.
Former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will assume the reins as the interim head coach on Rocky Top. This is a move which surprises precisely no one. It was clear from the moment Steele was brought onboard a few days ago that he was being brought in to replace Pruitt. Football writers knew it, fans knew it, and the Tennessee players bum-rushing the transfer portal knew it.
Steele will certainly get a look as the permanent coach if things go well in 2021. However, it should be clear to everyone including Kevin Steele that he will likely be the head coach at the University of Tennessee in 2022 only if a better option does not present itself. By appointing Steele now the Volunteers place themselves at the front of the line for coaching candidates eleven months from now as opposed to at the rear of the line twelve months hence. It is a maneuver as savvy as it is transparent.
Like a lot of savvy maneuvers, it is likely ultimately to come to nothing. Tennessee will remain a mid tier SEC coaching destination from which good football coaches will struggle to wring anything but mid tier results. And Tennessee fans will continue to chatter on the Internet about their football program doing things right and demonstrating how honorable they are by ferreting out the cheaters in their midst.
That’s a sham.
I would refer to it as intellectual dishonesty, but that would imply something associated with the University of Tennessee had the capacity for intellect. I think we both know that even if that were true I’d never be able to admit it.