Editor’s Note: Tennessee football preview comes to us by Smitty, Braves Journal’s faithful Tennessee fan.
Tennessee is coming off the worst season in program history and maybe the craziest offseason in any program’s history.
Let’s start with a recap of what went down football wise.
The Vols came into 2017 ranked 25th in what appeared to be a rebuilding year. As I noted in last year’s preview, I thought the Vols had some holes, but would be improved in many areas.
Even my worst case scenario wasn’t even close.
The 2017 got off to an exciting start, when the Vols rallied to beat Georgia Tech in double overtime. A staple of Butch Jone’s Tennessee teams was playing totally different if they got too far a head or too far behind.
After thumping Indiana State in the second game, the beginning of the end started in Gainesville.
After poor offensive play calling selections (throwing four times from the two yard line), the Vols managed to tie the game and seemed to have all the momentum heading into overtime. With one second left in the game Feleipe Franks threw a 63-yard touchdown to Tyrie Cleveland. No one knows why the Vols weren’t in prevent D.
The drums of change began pounding very loudly and Butch never could right the ship. The Vols would only win two more games, and for the first time ever, failed to win an SEC game.
Why Did Butch Fail?
This is a very complicated, yet easy question to answer: He was in over his head.
Very early on Butch was able to land an impressive crop of instate and legacy talent. This group was able to inch the Vols closer to relativity. In fact, in 2016 the Vols looked primed to win the SEC East after beating Florida and Georgia. The Dobb-nail Boot was the high water mark of the Jones era.
Then Butch started recruiting based on Rivals’ ratings and not fit to his system. Many of the recruits he brought in were busts, or weren’t being developed well.
Butch struggled with media and fan criticism. He also started having issues with players on the team (Jalen Hurd). He was constantly lying to the media and always answering in clichés.
In late 2015 Butch fired the strength and conditioning coach. He waited over a year to officially replace him. This move set the program back 1-2 years.
When Butch came from Cincinnati, his first press conference he talked about bringing the best staff in the country. Well, the staff he brought with him only had two coaches with any SEC experience and they were the best group he had.
Okay. Let’s Talk Coaching Search
Coaching searches are fun. Rumors fly and planes are tracked. But what happened at Tennessee was beyond message board fodder. This was the perfect storm. To understand truly what happened, we have to go back and time and look at the big picture.
For decades, the University of Tennessee has been notoriously cheap when searching for coaches in any sport. Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough (Bruce Pearl) but many times you end up with Derek Dooley.
While Phillip Fulmer enjoyed success for much of the 90s and 2000s, the basketball program saw scrubs like Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neal, Jerry Green and Buzz Peterson. No one really cared how the basketball team did if the football team was winning.
In 2001, the wheels on the Fulmer Express started coming off. It appeared Fulmer couldn’t win without David Cutcliffe, recruiting stated to suffer and a change was made.
Athletic Director Mike Hamilton hired Lane Kiffin to right the ship. For the first 13-14 months, it appeared he was doing just that. However, Hamilton put a ridiculously low buyout in Kiffin’s deal and he was able to go to USC before signing day. Hamilton panicked and hired Derek Dooley on the cheap. A year and some change later Hamilton was gone and Dave Hart was hired.
Hart inherited a terrible mess from Hamilton. Bruce Pearl had just been fired. Tennessee was still paying Fulmer and a few basketball and baseball coaches. There was very little money in the reserves. Tennessee needed Dooley to right the ship. But he couldn’t.
Hart did two good things in his time at Tennessee. He hired Rick Barnes and he was able to refill the athletic department’s reserves. However, Hart whiffed on a baseball coach and a football coach. He then hired Butch Jones on the cheap and essentially showed Pat Summitt the door. He also was very stingy with allowing head coaches to hire assistants. Butch had to beg to get Bob Shoop, which turned into a disaster.
At the same time these nickel and dime antics were going on, Tennessee was boasting having a top 10 grossing athletic department in the country. Volnation was supporting the program, but not getting much in return.
Hart retired (some say he was asked to) and it appeared UT-Chattanooga (Go Mocs!) AD Dave Blackburn was poised to get the job. However, at the last minute, Chancellor Beverly Davenport gave in to a few of the bigger boosters (Haslams) and hired John Currie from Kansas State. Davenport was just recently given the boot over this decision.
Prior to his tenure at K-State, Currie (like Blackburn) was an assistant to Hamilton. Currie was the driving force behind firing Fulmer, hiring Kiffin and Pearl. Currie also burned a lot of bridges during his time in Knoxville. His hire was a surprise to say the least.
As the 2017 season limped a long, it was obvious Currie was going to have to hire a football coach in his first year. It was a decision he put off for several weeks longer than he should have, but he eventually pulled the trigger.
Grumors and Such
As you all know, Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden was an assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors. Every Tennessee coaching search always starts with “We’re getting Gruden!” Usually after a few weeks, the athletic department will leak something to damp down those expectations. Not in 2017.
Now, there is no way the Vols were getting Gruden, but it was fun to talk about.
There were also rumors Tennessee would be checking in on Chip Kelly, Bob Stoops and several other big names. The week of the Vanderbilt game, it appeared the target had moved to Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. Mullen appeared to be interested in the job, but was waiting to see what happened to Florida first.
While Mullen isn’t a sexy hire, Tennessee fans would not have revolted if he got the job. Mullen is a good coach and had a good run at MSU. When Kelly and Florida didn’t work, it was an obvious choice.
With Mullen on his way to Gainesville, Currie turned to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Schiano had a successful tenure at Rutgers before being named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, where he was a disaster. Schiano has been tied (very loosely) to the Penn State scandal. There were also rumors of poor treatment of players at both Rutgers and Tampa Bay. This pick reeked of another bargain basement pick, and the fan base had enough.
Very quickly Twitter and other forms of social media blew up. State representatives began to call the board of trustees and after a few hours, the deal was dead.
I believe Schiano would have been a disaster hire. He has a very similar demeanor as Butch and probably would have been shown the door after three years.
Currie moved on to Dave Doeren of NC State. Doeren seemed interested in the job, but after he met with Fulmer, it seemed Tennessee had moved on. Over the next few days names like Jeff Brohm and Chad Morris started popping up. Then Currie disappeared. Literally no one cold find him. His boss and her boss were worried.
Currie turns up on the west coast and has Mike Leach all but wrapped up, when he is summoned back to Knoxville. The next day he is fired and Fulmer is hired to finish out the search.
Fulmer quickly set his sights on a defensive minded coach with SEC experience. His final three choices were Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Fulmer tabbed Pruitt.
Pruitt is going into his first season as a head coach and your guess is a good as mine on his ability to run a program. There is no doubt he is an outstanding coordinator, but running a program is a different animal.
To wrap this preview up, I think Tennessee will be anywhere from 5-7 to 7-5. I’ll split the difference and go 6-6 with a trip to the Liberty Bowl.