NCAA Football is to many a way of life. Here in the South, College Football is almost a religion, especially in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
And in Knoxville, the cathedral we lovingly call “Neyland Stadium” is starting to stink.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired Monday by the University of Tennessee allegedly “for cause” following an NCAA investigation over recruiting irregularities. Nine other staffers got the axe. The Athletics Director announced his resignation. The University leaked the email outlining the rationale behind their decision to the press.
Tuesday, Pruitt lawyered up and shut up. His counsel released a statement calling bullshit on the termination. Opining it was rather convenient the University found a way to let Pruitt go without paying him anything in return, Pruitt threatened legal action.
Any talk of litigation is pure bluster right now. This is him telling the school’s top brass “fuck you, pay me.” Several other high profile coaches have been fired this year and left with at least some money for their trouble.
Understanding how the Vols got here requires a trip back to 1992, when Johnny Majors handed over coaching duties to a fresh-faced Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer took what Majors built and had a successful run, even winning a national championship in the process.
Great success in college football brings great expectations, and Fulmer was “future endeavored”* after failing to make a bowl game one year.
Fulmer’s replacement was Lane Kiffin. Young and energetic, Kiffin promised to bring NFL style coaching to Vol Football. He was the first college coach I saw use a play card to cover his mouth whenever on camera so no one could read his lips.
Kiffin showed promise, even almost scoring an upset victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide. By all accounts, the program appeared in good hands. Then fourteen months into the job, Kiffin took a better paying job elsewhere and left in the middle of the night.
This was viewed as borderline treason in Knoxville. Kiffin was burned in effigy and labeled a traitor. To this day locals will tell you, “Lane Kiffin” is an unsavory pejorative. Several police friends of mine joke if Kiffin ever sets foot in Knoxville he’s getting stopped and searched for something.
With no coach and signing day fast approaching, the Vols tapped Derek Dooley to run the program. A bumbling, ineffectual man, Dooley’s first attempt at soothing the tensions on Rocky Top was telling a local talk radio host, “Nothing I can say will please everyone.”
He was right, and exited the program almost as swiftly as he entered.
And then there was Lyle “Butch” Jones.**
I actually got to meet Lyle when he first came to town at a lunch sponsored by the University and attended by several prominent businessmen. Jones spoke of restoring respect and teamwork to the program. This was a time for rebuilding, and while the process would be hard, Jones promised to do the job “brick by brick.”
He enjoyed some success, thanks largely to a series of stellar recruits. One was Alvin Kamara, a ridiculously talented running back currently enjoying a career with the New Orleans Saints. Josh “Spaceman” Dobbs was another. An astrophysics major with a cannon of an arm, Dobbs is set to succeed Ben Roethlisberger when the Steelers deem him ready.
Eyebrows raised one year when Jones told reporters winning an NCAA championship was pointless as his Vols were “Champions of Life.” When he lost to Vanderbilt, a disgraceful moment, Jones was fired. You can’t be a coach at UT and lose to Vanderbilt. It’s an unwritten job requirement.
Another coaching search began. This time it was pretty clear the Haslam family’d sunk their mitts into the football program and were using money and influence to steer the team’s direction.
The three Haslams accused of meddling with Vol Football were patriarch “Big” Jim Haslam and sons Bill and Jimmy. Bill is a former Tennessee Governor. Jimmy owns the Pilot/Flying J gas station chain and the Cleveland Browns.***
Reaching out to Athletics Director John Currie, the Haslams told him to open the checkbook and find the best candidate for the job. After a very quiet search, Currie picked former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
The response from Knoxville was a mixture of “who?” and “fucking really?” Some of the most ardent objections came from sportswriter and radio personality Clay Travis, a UT alumni and rabid fan of the program. Citing past player stories of abuse and a lackluster career, Travis whipped Vol fans into such a frenzy that people waited at McGhee-Tyson airport with signs saying “SchiaNO” and “Go Home Greg.”
Schiano never made it to Rocky Top. Currie was suspended as Athletic Director. The university needed to rehabilitate their image after a PR nightmare.
Step one in the attempt was bringing the beloved Phil Fulmer back as the new Athletics Director. Step two was the hiring of Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as the new Head Ball Coach.
Many cheered and saw this as a coup since Nick Saban and the Tide are mortal enemies of the Vols. Stealing away their defensive coordinator was hailed as a knife in the figurative Devil’s back.
Pruitt never really got momentum going in the program. He finished the 2020-2021 season with an abysmal 3-7 record. All seven losses were by double digits. It’s the worst seasonal performance since 1902. His coaching record is around .412.
Hopefully these allegations are found baseless, the beef with Pruitt settled quickly, and everyone can move on. As of this writing, rumors are flying around town recruits were handed McDonald’s bags full of cash at the campus cafeteria. Others say staffers were tasked with paying strip club tabs for potential players.
If these rumors are true, then I feel terrible for Pruitt and the other fired coaching staff. They didn’t learn the first rule of recruiting the Nick Saban way: get someone else to pay cash for the hookers and blow before recruits tour campus.
*This is a polite way of saying he was fired. As in “we wish you the best in your future endeavors.”
**Lyle once spoke of a collection of twenty-two watches, which my mean-ass editor once called “adorable.”
***Jimmy was also the subject of a Federal investigation over alleged fraud involving gas rebates for long haul truckers. But let’s not dwell on all his poor decisions.