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A year after firing Butch Jones, Tennessee feels like they’re getting back on the right track

What a year.

Tennessee v South Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

One year ago today, the University of Tennessee fired Butch Jones. After failing to get over the hump in 2015 and 2016, everything fell apart in 2017. The need for a change was obvious, but no one could have predicted what came next.

The 2017 Tennessee coaching search will go down in history as the wildest search of all time. No search will ever top it. It had everything from outright fan and booster revolt, to a falsely reported hire, to multiple near hires, to the athletics director going missing, then getting fired mid-search.

Here’s the timeline for a refresher.

Tennessee coaching search timeline

  • Butch Jones fired
  • Dan Mullen rumored as a replacement, but he opts to go to Florida
  • John Currie reportedly hires Schiano, fans revolt, Currie backs out.
  • Mike Gundy flirts, stays with Oklahoma State.
  • Jeff Brohm reportedly takes Tennessee job, turns out that report was false.
  • Dave Doeren talks with Tennessee, Currie ghosts him.
  • Currie’s whereabouts is unknown.
  • Currie in talks with Mike Leach in California, but is called to return to Knoxville.
  • Currie gets fired, Fulmer takes over.
  • Fulmer narrows choices to Steele, Pruitt, Tucker.
  • Fulmer hires Pruitt.

To the national audience, Tennessee was a total joke during and after the search. Analysts asked, who would take this job now? Who would want to lead a program that had just given in to an “internet mob?” Who would want to work for first time AD Phillip Fulmer, who obviously is going to eventually steal the show and take the reins himself.

The jabs were non-stop. The national media’s love affair with Greg Schiano was nothing short of bizarre. He would have been a disaster for a few of different reasons and Tennessee couldn’t afford another disaster hire after ten years of overall embarrassment. Above all else, Tennessee needed a no-nonsense football guy. Schiano may have been that, but he had zero southern recruiting ties. Add in the way things ended in Tampa Bay and Tennessee fans had every right to do what they did.

Watching the school swing and miss multiple times during the Derek Dooley and Butch Jones hiring cycles had given fans zero confidence heading into this search. Rumors of Gruden swirled, but Currie never shot them down. There was reported contact (later proven true) with Dan Mullen.

The main problem with the Schiano hire was that it just simply felt rushed. Chip Kelly chose UCLA over Florida, which sent Mullen to Florida. Shortly after — literally minutes after that story broke — the Schiano to Tennessee news came down.

Why rush to hire this guy? Were there any other schools coming after him? Furthermore, plenty of quality candidates were still out there.

Tennessee fans, former players and some boosters took back the program on that day. Their efforts just might have steered the program back onto the tracks.

That wild Sunday eventually (after an absolutely bonkers three weeks) led us to Phillip Fulmer taking control of the athletics department. That was the first step towards getting back to some sense of normal. A beloved Tennessee figure was now running the show. Finally, confidence was high in Tennessee’s administration.

Since that search ended, Jeremy Pruitt has had his head down working. From day one, Pruitt has been a perfect fit. He’s the anti-Butch — no catchphrases, no megaphones, no excuses.

Perhaps most importantly, the guy is a rockstar recruiter, which is a proven trait needed to win in the SEC. Pruitt somehow pulled off a top-20 recruiting class, despite taking over Tennessee with just two weeks left before the early signing period. Pruitt currently has Tennessee in the top 15 for 2019’s class, with potential to land a couple of big prospects this offseason.

Pruitt has fixed up the cornerback position with a couple of true freshmen, which was Tennessee’s biggest area of need after the 2018 season. Jarrett Guarantano has turned into a legitimate threat at the quarterback position, while Josh Palmer, Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings have continued to blossom into playmakers.

For the first time in a long time, Tennessee is getting better and developing players. That team that took the field in Charlotte against West Virginia isn’t the same team that we’re currently watching.

They’ve knocked off two top 25 teams already in Pruitt’s first ten games. For reference, Butch Jones defeated six ranked teams during his five years in Knoxville.

I’ll be the first to tell you that Tennessee still has a long climb ahead. Beating Kentucky isn’t going to satisfy anyone around Knoxville in the longterm. But finally, the arrow feels like it’s starting to point upwards.