The saga of Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee has come to a close. On Monday, it was revealed that the school would be moving on from the embattled head coach, whose tenure came crashing down faster than pretty much anyone would have anticipated.
Pandemic or not, the 2020 season was a disaster for Tennessee football. After going 3-7 with embarrassing losses to Kentucky and Arkansas, it became obvious that the progress simply wasn’t there to justify keeping Pruitt around for a fourth year. Then came news of an investigation into the program, and it was obvious what the next steps were.
Rocky Top Talk will have you covered with the main candidates for the job, updates on players transferring, and everything else entailed in a coach’s firing. But for now, I think it’s a fair task to look back and wonder: Why did Jeremy Pruitt fail? What were the warning signs?
I think you can more or less capture the fall of Pruitt with three factors that arose under his watch.
Inability to Evaluate Staff
I think this was a factor which, out of all the others, got covered up after the 6-game winning streak to end the 2019 season. I’ll admit, even I looked past it.
Tennessee started out that year looking very poor in many areas. It looked like there was no development at all over the course of the offseason. Offensive line and defensive line were two of the more egregious headscratchers, and the lack of progress directly led to the worst loss in program history against Georgia State.
The team did rally and look better to end the year, but the complete lack of fire to start out was absolutely a warning sign for those trying to evaluate the staff. For whatever reason, the team looked like they were sleepwalking.
In hindsight, it was clear that coaches like Will Friend, Chris Weinke, and Tracy Rocker should have been on hot seats. Their units were very talented and had more than enough time to gel. But it didn’t happen until the season actually began. By the time 2019 was over and 2020 had started, they needed to show more improvement.
But we found ourselves back at the same starting point. Against South Carolina and Missouri this year, Tennessee’s offensive line looked very similar to how it looked to end the 2019 season. But that wasn’t good enough. They had improved their talent with Cade Mays transferring, and had another off-season to work on it. But the progress was simply too slow. Add in more of the same quarterback play, and you came out with questions about what exactly coaches were getting paid to do.
I am going to say something that might sound hyperbolic at first. But it is completely true.
Jarrett Guarantano cost Jeremy Pruitt his job.
Please understand what I am saying here. I am not accusing Guarantano of intentionally sabotaging Jeremy Pruitt. And I am not saying fans should direct their ire at Guarantano.
Instead, what I am saying is that Pruitt‘s asinine decision to continually start Guarantano, despite zero to little improvement in his time at Tennessee, proved far more detrimental than any other factor. Guarantano’s inability to be a consistent starter meant that Tennessee would often times find themselves in an early hole—or even worse—being forced to shuffle players to try and find an answer.
Yet, despite multiple games where they did so, they never followed through with it in the long term. No matter what happened, Guarantano found himself back as the starting quarterback.
This loyalty to a player who was clearly not the answer is mind blowing. He wasn’t even recruited by the staff! It may have been Jeremy Pruitt, it may have been Jim Chaney, but whoever it was, did multiple people a disservice.
And worst of all? They did Guarantano a disservice. They should’ve been clear with him from the start that he needed to find a better situation. They should’ve stuck to their guns and moved forward with a younger QB.
Instead, they let seniority take over, and right now Jeremy Pruitt is out of a job. You cannot deny the shakiness at quarterback allowed this scenario to play out. They screwed Guarantano, and ultimately they screwed themselves.
Blowouts Hurt Perception
I’m not sure how much this factor truly affected the locker room, but it undeniably affected fan perception. I think Tennessee—and by extension Jeremy Pruitt—would’ve fared better if they simply lost by closer margins.
It seems silly to say, but when you think about how fans digest games, it’s a lot easier to see the good parts of a loss when it is close. You can look at the parts that went well, you can look at the parts that you could improve on.
But when you get blown out, it’s probably an affair in which your team gave up. That sits well with nobody.
And perhaps even more towards the perception issue, it can really affect how fans see your program’s health. For instance, do we think the Kentucky football program is 27 points better than Tennessee? Probably not. That’s no disrespect to Kentucky, but Tennessee’s performance did not live up to what the Vols could do. In a major way.
And that speaks to a Jeremy Pruitt not having them ready. It speaks to him letting things get out of hand. At the end of the day, when you look at the scoreboard, and it appears you got your butt whooped (because you did), that’s going to hurt your job prospects.