There is an oft-quoted phrase falsely attributed to Albert Einstein which concludes — perhaps wisely — that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Tennessee Volunteers football program is on its fourth coach since 2009 — fifth if you count interim Brady Hoke’s short tenure at the helm. The term “coaching carousel” widely circulates the college football landscape in the off-season, and it includes all programs searching for new coaches. But at Tennessee, the football program serves as its own self-contained coaching carousel.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt is just another on a long list of entrants on the Volunteer sideline. Given the massive pitfalls of the 2020 season at Neyland and elsewhere — a clear regression on Rocky Top — calls for Pruitt and Co.’s jobs have come fast and furious. While warranted in the eyes of many, we must at some points ask ourselves: “What’s next?” No obvious plan is in place once the Pruitt Era concludes, yet we’re quick to signal its departure.
Let me be clear, this isn’t a plea to give Pruitt any more leash, nor am I imploring a disgruntled and disheartened fanbase to simply accept the results which have proliferated over the last seven games. What I am suggesting, however, is that before closing one chapter, an outline for the next chapter must first be written.
Tennessee’s football program seems to be stuck in an inexorable cycle which inevitably leads to a coaching change. Then, there appears to be a coach du jour — the next Fulmer, perhaps? — and those issuing the inquest can only be satiated with a change of leadership and, in particular, a change of leadership which results in their individual coach of preference.
That coach these days, it seems, is Hugh Freeze. As David Ubben argues at The Athletic, Auburn’s decision to fire Gus Malzahn seems to expedite Freeze’s apparently inevitable return to the Southeastern Conference. Therefore, the exit of Malzahn creates an interesting crossroad for Tennessee: Does it, as a result, expedite the exit of Pruitt from Knoxville?
Based on the evidence, my guess is no. In all likelihood, Pruitt will be on the sideline at Neyland Stadium next fall. That means the fanbase could lose out on the coveted Freeze, should the Tigers be inclined to bring aboard the former Ole Miss head coach. I remain somewhat perplexed with the base’s adoration of Freeze — the coach who was forced out of Oxford for recruiting violations, among other things.
Whether or not the fanbase is willing to accept Freeze’s problematic history is irrelevant to those in actual decision-making positions. I would suspect that Freeze’s additional baggage is something Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer would prefer to steer clear of, especially considering the scope of Tennessee football and the microscope potential coaching candidates are under.
But if somebody like Freeze is the ultimate preference of the fanbase and, if it comes to pass, the athletic department, then it must be assured that he’s the right fit for the job. While I remain unconvinced that somebody like Freeze is the savior of the program, which seems to be a popular refrain among the more vocal users of Twitter, there must first be an obvious plan moving forward — and one, in my opinion, which requires a definitive timeline so as to avoid this scrapping with each other over whether or not a coach and his staff deserve more time.
Tennessee, then, has to be cautious so as to not continue the cycle. It’s an easy enough thing to say; it’s much harder to implement. At its current pace, the Volunteer football program seems to be in a never-ending spiral of coaching changes. Wash, rinse, repeat. With every passing season, Tennessee’s another year removed from true relevancy; furthermore, they continue to cement themselves as the program which lacks stability and a definitive plan. These types of inconsistencies in approach and an unwillingness to alter program philosophy in order to keep up with the rest of the conference might occasionally work in an inferior conference, but not the SEC.
A Saturday loss to Vanderbilt very likely would’ve signaled the end of Pruitt — there would be no choice — but it didn’t do much in the way of cooling off the situation. The water remains at a boil as a once promising season is falling just short of a full-on death spiral. These declarations are dramatic, certainly, but these are apparently dire times for a program which many thought might be on the rise. Pruitt might not be the coach for the job, but it’s also not clear that any potential candidates are the right fit for this program.
If Pruitt’s gone at the end of this season — or even at the end of next — it may be groundhog day on Rocky Top once again.