On March 12, I was in Knoxville on the campus of the University of Tennessee. At that point, I had heard rumblings about COVID-19, but it didn’t seem to be affecting everyday life very much. In an early morning Shakespeare class, I overheard a pair of students discussing the potential that campus would be shut down.
It seemed plausible. At that point, Ohio State University had already shuttered its doors for the time being, and it seemed logical that many other major universities across the country would begin doing the same. But as I sat outside the art and architecture building eating my lunch and listening to the Dan Le Batard Show on ESPN Radio discuss the cancellation of college basketball conference tournaments, I took a moment to look around.
Everything appeared normal. Students were walking to and from class, a delivery truck was going about business as usual, and faculty members were gathered discussing something close by. Nobody seemed very concerned about a lingering virus. That was the final day I was supposed to be on campus before Spring Break kicked off the following Monday. I would not return to class in 2020.
The timeline of events leading up to a nationwide closure reads something like a book about a pandemic – after all, a pandemic is precisely where we were heading. In the early months, we didn’t know much about the virus, which caused many to be uneasy. All that we knew was many people were contracting the virus and some were dying. As things progressed, the cancellation of sports leagues seemed fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of what was happening. Without enough knowledge of the situation, it was important to navigate the perils of the problem with caution.
Being a citizen concerned about sports, however, I was upset – but not surprised – when I heard about the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament. My alma mater, East Tennessee State University, was poised to be a mid-major program ready to make some noise after having their best regular season in school history and winning the conference title, a tournament that wrapped up March 9. But it came into sharp focus that all the leagues I cared about might be done for the remainder of the year: MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL, and college football.
All that to say, we were all affected by the coronavirus pandemic, whether that means working with additional precautions, working from home, or for many, losing their work completely. That also includes everyone in the sports industry. Everybody went into their respective seasons having to chart unknown territory to try to make it work. While everyone had constraints placed on them, should the Tennessee fanbase be willing to give head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff a “free pass” for the season?
The college football landscape has largely been a giant shakeup all season long, with only the major programs not showing as many ill side effects as most. By all accounts, Tennessee’s camp this season wasn’t much of a camp at all. Mix that in with a fairly quick buildup, players being out due to injury or COVID precautions, and the exodus of team-leading seniors, and the Volunteers were set to face a challenging journey in 2020.
None of this is said to make an excuse for the team or the coaching staff. But I’ve heard many analysts discuss giving coaches leeway in this strange and difficult season. Vol Twitter exploded with calls to replace quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and fire Pruitt, as well as offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. It may well be true Tennessee is utilizing a formula that wouldn’t work under normal conditions, so those problems are more obvious in a year where teams need to be firing on all cylinders to remain competitive.
After the Vols first two weeks, fans were optimistic heading into the Georgia game. Tennessee was ranked 14th after wins against South Carolina and Missouri. There was some reason to expect the football team to be competitive in Athens. For one half, they were. In the second half, however, the team imploded and haven’t recovered since, losing four straight contests, including losses to Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas.
The play calling has often been questionable at best, but that could be a result of players simply who aren’t present or who aren’t ready to be playing games. That burden still falls on the coaching staff, but it’s something to consider. Game management has also been abysmal and that’s a problem that operates independently of the COVID pandemic and what kind of toll it takes on a team and staff.
The latter point has resulted in a fanbase that questions Pruitt’s competency, having trouble believing that he is the correct coach to lead a football team – not just Tennessee, but to be the head coach anywhere. He seems in over his head on the sidelines and therefore it’s attractive to imagine Pruitt’s contract being bought out and bringing in some other head coach – a cycle that’s become wash, rinse, repeat in Knoxville.
Vol Twitter seems to suggest that Pruitt shouldn’t be granted any semblance of amnesty in 2020, but Twitter timelines aren’t often indicative of true sentiments among the general public. A widespread poll of Tennessee fans coast to coast would be a better indicator, but while Pruitt appears to be a strong recruiter, he doesn’t appear to be a strong head coach — a belief that I think would be backed up by that aforementioned poll.
With that said, he’s unlikely to be gone in the near-term. Regardless of whether or not fans choose to extend the leash in 2020, athletic director Phillip Fulmer and whoever is in charge of the finances dedicated to the athletics department likely won’t be willing to eat Pruitt’s contract.
If trends remain on their current projection, then Pruitt won’t be around to see the conclusion of his contract, which is set to be in effect until the beginning of 2026. It may be true, however, that a staff reorganization looms on the horizon, with some moves likely coming in the offseason prior to the start of the 2021 season.
Finally, although fans should be reluctant to give Pruitt too much COVID credit, he’ll very likely be on the sidelines for the next few seasons, and certainly when the Volunteers kick off next year. For now, we have to do make do with what we have. Here’s to better days — hopefully.