Tennessee has no shortage of rivals in the SEC, but there is one that has always stood alone, even in the midst of a ten game losing streak-The University of Alabama (or the ‘Red Team’ as a now fired coach once referred to them as).
While the Third Saturday in October may have lost a lot of it’s luster as of late, there is no doubt that Tennessee’s hire of Jeremy Pruitt-a man who was born, raised, played, and coached at Alabama-might finally add some intrigue in what was once one of college football’s premier rivalries.
Even despite Alabama’s recent, most dominant run in this series’ history, people haven’t forgotten the importance of Tennessee versus Alabama. In fact, when news broke on Wednesday that Tennessee’s hire of Jeremy Pruitt was imminent, many began to wonder how it made Phillip Fulmer feel to lure away a coach from the hated Crimson Tide. To make this whole situation all the more interesting, Fulmer went with a Saban disciple over a couple of former Tennessee players in Tee Martin and Kevin Steele.
Who would have ever thought that Phillip Fulmer, who reveled in beating Alabama and is despised by Alabama fans to this day, would turn to an Alabama native, Alabama grad and Alabama assistant coach to lead the Vols' program? Not sure this search could have a more fitting ending.— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) December 7, 2017
It’s no secret that there is no love lost between Alabama fans and Phillip Fulmer. At one point, he may have been the most hated man in the Yellowhammer State. According to an ESPN report in 2004, Fulmer provided behind the scenes information to the NCAA about violations by the Alabama coaching staff. Then there was that one time back in 2008 where Fulmer served as a witness in an NCAA investigation against Alabama, an investigation that led to probation for the Alabama football program. Even more impressive was his on the field success against Alabama, going 11-5 in 17 years as the head coach at Tennessee. He’s the last Tennessee head coach to beat the Crimson Tide.
While it will come as a shock to some that Fulmer opted with an Alabama assistant coach over an assistant with Tennessee ties, he did hire a coach who is not only a top notch coordinator with an impressive resume, he also snagged one of Saban’s best recruiters on staff. One can’t help but wonder if any of Alabama’s top defensive prospects of the 2018 class with give Tennessee a look with Pruitt now in charge.
Ironically, there is only one other head coach in Tennessee history that claimed Alabama as his alma mater and that was Fulmer’s head coach, Bill Battle. Battle played defensive end under Bear Bryant in the early 1960s. He joined Doug Dickey’s staff at Tennessee in 1966 to coach the defensive ends and after Dickey left for Florida, Battle was elevated to head coach in 1970 at the age of 28.
Battle had success early, winning 10 or more games in each of his first three seasons, but there was one thing he couldn’t do-which ultimately led to his departure in 1976- and that was beat Alabama. In his seven years at the helm, Battle was 1-6 against his alma mater and former coach.
The Jeremy Pruitt era should finally garner some national interest again in the rivalry when Alabama travels to Knoxville in 2018. One thing he probably knows is he’s going to have to do is something Battle couldn’t, beat his old boss. Since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Alabama is 10-0 against the Vols, making it the second longest streak in series history.
With Butch Jones’ reign now in the rear-view mirror, Tennessee is looking to rebound from their worst season in program history. While beating Florida and Georgia is just as important, playing Alabama still means something, and it means a lot more if you can beat them. After a decade of misery versus the Vols’ most traditionally hated rival, can an Alabama man finally restore Tennessee’s dominance over the Tide? That remains to be seen, but the idea of it will certainly be a talking point between now and October.