Don’t be scared by the headline. This won’t be as negative as you think. In fact, it’s more reflective than anything.
If you’re a college football fan, then you know about the struggles of the Tennessee Volunteers over the past decade. If you’re an actual Vols fan, then you have lived through the struggle every day and you know every move that has led the program here.
The knee-jerk firing of Phil Fulmer and the subsequent, foolhardy hiring of Lane Kiffin led to the debacle that was Derek Dooley, which then begat Butch Jones and the worst season in program history.
Each move continued to raise eyebrows as the years progressed and each move drove the program down a darker path. Everything officially exploded upon the news of Greg Schiano’s hire.
Fans revolted. The Vols turned their back on Schiano. The rest is history.
Before the Schiano catastrophe, a popular theory had begun to take hold amongst fans and even some pundits: UT’s lack of success over the years was due to the fact that everyone currently running the program were not invested as they should be. Tennessee needed someone — anyone — that considered themselves a VFL, not an outsider looking to maintain a steady paycheck.
This theory eventually became the battle cry that moved John Currie out of the AD office and put Fulmer in. Finally, the program had a leader who cares, a leader who will do whatever it takes to restore Tennessee to its winning ways.
Alumni, former players, boosters, fans — everyone — were all in. Everyone watched as Fulmer did his thing and before they knew it, Jeremy Pruitt was being introduced as head coach.
Pruitt came in and turned a bad situation into a respectable one. The Vols were in the mid-50s when it came to recruiting and Pruitt had them inside the top-25 before it was all said and done. Things were looking up, as they should. After all, the program was back in great hands.
But then a 5-7 season which concluded with a third straight loss to Vanderbilt happened. Tennessee did managed to beat two ranked SEC opponents, but outside of those victories, there wasn’t much else to get excited about.
Then Tyson Helton left for a head coaching gig at Western Kentucky. Again, the thought was that this move would be good for the program, considering Helton never really had anything to do with the Vols like Fulmer and others did.
So Pruitt went out and hired Jim Chaney, a former position coach at Tennessee, as offensive coordinator. Monday night, ESPN’s Chris Low broke the news that Tee Martin, UT’s quarterback during the 1998 national championship season, will be joining the staff as an offensive assistant.
Tee Martin is returning to Rocky Top. The former @Vol_Football quarterback has agreed to a deal to join @CoachJPruitt's staff and is scheduled to be on campus Tuesday, sources told ESPN. https://t.co/EUVYwV1o7Z— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) January 15, 2019
Now, the program has both former players and former coaches that were successful on the staff. There is more familiarity and loyalty on this staff than there has been since Fulmer was let go.
Loyalty to the program is important. Look at Alabama and Georgia. Mal Moore and Greg McGarity, the two coaches responsible for hiring Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, are both alumni of their respective universities.
Both programs are top-tier in the SEC. A lot of it is because they had athletic directors that were not only good at their jobs, but had their finger on the pulse of the program and knew what it needed.
But does loyalty to a program equal wins?
What if it doesn’t happen for the Vols? What if Pruitt can never right the ship and Tennessee continues to endure mediocre-at-best seasons for another decade?
Can fans endure to lose to the Florida Gators for 10 straight years again? Can they continue to endure giving up historically high scoring numbers to Alabama? When will the Vols beat Vanderbilt again?
Time is running out and so are the excuses as to why the Vols can’t dig out of this rut. And if they can’t dig out of this rut in particular, it’s going to cost the program a legend in Fulmer.
How many chances would he get to find another coach if Pruitt doesn’t work out? Would the fans be patient enough to give the next hire enough time to get it right? How long would it take before he is ousted?
And if that happens, where does the program go from there? If the program can’t win with people from within or without - then who the hell can win in Knoxville?
I know, I just rattled off a ton of scenarios and questions, but the scary part is that all of them have a chance to be answered. There is no guarantee that this plan will work and if it doesn’t, then there will be no direction in sight for this program.
Is this Tennessee football’s last stand? Years of pride, history, and tradition are on the line.
The future of the program is, too.