What exactly happened behind-the-scenes during the 2013 season at Florida State and into the offseason is somewhat shrouded in mystery. There’s enough oral histories and archived articles which discuss Jeremy Pruitt coaching under Jimbo Fisher, and then there’s the off-the-record material that no one will ever confidently verify. Most paint a picture of two men with similar drives towards winning, who came together and produced one of the most dominant teams of the BCS era.
That same drive turned out to be a dividing factor as well, and Pruitt realized that his best career trajectory was not in Tallahassee.
Pruitt undoubtedly took some pointers from each program he stopped at, FSU being no different. But what about what happened after he left? Obviously he wouldn’t know the intimate details of that (unless Charles Kelly gossiped to him) but it provides some warnings and recommendations that Pruitt could use during his first season in Knoxville.
Take it from someone who covered the last leg of the Fisher era at Florida State: greatness can happen quickly if you keep your program vision clear. It can also fade quickly if you refuse to cut the dead weight.
Then first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher didn’t have lofty expectations when he took over the reigns in 2010. Improvement from 7-6 was expected, and an appearance in the ACC championship was the consensus of preseason voting. Serious national contention was out of the question while Fisher built up his team.
The 2009 team suffered deflating losses to both of their main rivals in the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators. It wasn’t uncommon to hear FSU fans remark that they’d be fine with no ACC Championship appearance as long as it meant they could beat Miami or Florida.
Fisher accurately gauged the sentiments within the fan-base and had his eyes set on the Florida game. Within the program, there was a clear focus on that 2010 Florida contest. The Gators had opened up a 6 year win streak that helped lead to dominance on the recruiting trail. Fisher knew that a win over them wouldn’t just excite the fans—it would shift the in-state power struggle back to the Seminoles. He and his coaching staff were dialed in to winning and winning big. They would go on to stomp the Gators 31-7.
Fisher’s focus on the Florida contest might sound familiar to Tennessee fans discussing which 2018 game is a “must-win”. First year coaches are automatically given leeway by the fan-base, but not all games are created equal.
A win over the Gators in Knoxville doesn’t just represent an in-conference victory. It represents a tilting of the momentum towards Tennessee for the foreseeable future. Both programs suffered 4-win seasons and upheaval within their team. The talent gap is very small at the moment and Tennessee is currently recruiting better than their rivals in Gainesville. Beating Florida in 2018 would not just be a one-off: it could turn into a legitimate era of competitiveness with Tennessee coming out on top.
How long that era lasts and what it looks like could be up to Pruitt. During the 2013 preseason, the FSU coaching staff underwent major turnover. Besides the obvious arrival of assistant coach Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, FSU also made changes at offensive coordinator, running backs coach, linebackers coach, defensive ends coach, and quarterbacks coach.
It seemed like a major gamble at the time, considering the team went 12-2 with an Orange Bowl victory in the season prior. It wasn’t like all the departing coaches received clear upgrades either. Three of them (D.J. Eliot, James Coley, Dameyune Craig) made lateral moves. Why was Jimbo Fisher letting them go?
The end result provided the answer to that question. Fisher understood that the staff he came in with would not be enough to push FSU over the top. He was no longer a first-year head coach trying to institute his system—he was a fourth-year head coach trying to find the best operators for that system.
It’s ironic that complacency is ultimately what did Fisher in, but the lessons learned in that 2013 offseason are invaluable to Pruitt. Changes don’t need to be immediate and all-encompassing. But when the time comes, head coaches have to seriously evaluate their program and figure out where improvements can happen. If your goal is to compete in the SEC or national stage, and you aren’t doing that after three seasons, then it’s time for some introspection. The barometer of success might be altered because of Georgia and Alabama, but it is still a valid concern.
The final lesson Pruitt could learn from Fisher might be the most important.
What ultimately led to Fisher’s departure from Florida State could be debated for days. But at the center of everything that occurred, there was a distrust between Jimbo Fisher and the FSU boosters. The people partially responsible for supplying his program with necessary funds were unwilling to hear his demands any longer.
Fisher and Pruitt have similar personality traits when it comes to running a football team—they can be a bit aloof and distrusting when it comes to the public relations part of the job (this might have been a reason that Pruitt was in Tallahassee for just one year). That doesn’t impede success and it won’t matter if the team wins at a high level.
But at the end of the day, those in power want assurance that their money is going towards a competent program. Coaches like Fisher and Pruitt have to put on a happy face and sell their vision to these people. They will tolerate the first few years of a new regime attempting to find its footing.
After that, the head coach needs to be careful how they approach off-the-field requests if the winning isn’t up to expectations. The relationship between Fisher and the FSU boosters became increasingly antagonistic after 2016, where the Seminoles won the Orange Bowl but stumbled with three losses. Fisher’s goodwill effectively ran out midway through 2017, and the reports started coming out that detailed just how bad the situation had gotten.
Pruitt might have the longest leash of any Tennessee hire since Lane Kiffin. Unless he turns into the next coming of Nick Saban, he still won’t be immune to duties required of him. Thankfully for him, Tennessee seems to have a good system in place that will allow him to not butt heads with those above him. Phillip Fulmer as athletic director gives Pruitt a powerful supporter that will have his back as long as the program is heading in a positive direction.
Should Pruitt keep his focus on fully utilizing Tennessee’s resources, he will have a long career ahead of him. He gives off the vibe of a man not just worried about immediate success, but sustained long term success. The latter can only come about with a dedicated foreman.