Jeremy Pruitt's businessman approach breathes new life into scarred Tennessee program
There will be less sizzle and more steak on Rocky Top in 2018
ATLANTA -- Jeremy Pruitt's first trip through to the circus known as SEC Media Days signaled a massive shift for the Tennessee football program.
It's all business on Rocky Top. No catch phrases, five-star hearts or champions of life. Just football.
Former coach Butch Jones was full of that sizzle. But the steak turned out to be under-cooked, underwhelming and not up to the standard that Tennessee wanted. The program was such a joke under Jones that even his former players -- including running back Alvin Kamara -- jumped in to criticize the culture.
Almost instantaneously, the current players noticed that the era of fun and games was over.
"He came in and brought discipline, toughness and we hold ourselves accountable for our actions," wide receiver Marquez Callaway said. "From the top down, the coaches know what they're doing. That focus goes all the way to us when we prepare."
It might sound like a coached cliche to talk about the toughness. But in Tennessee, attitude and conditioning was a real problem. Seemingly every spring under Jones, the injury report read like an encyclopedia to a point where defensive lineman were switching over to offensive line simply to hold practices.
Strength, conditioning and toughness can't change overnight, and Pruitt found that out the hard way this spring.
"You know, right now, for us, there's lots of unknowns, lots of unknowns. We had 12 young men who did not participate in spring football because some sort of injury. We have 15 newcomers. Whether they are a junior college guy or they're a freshman and we have three grad transfers."
But without any connection to new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, the two came together in January and brought exactly what was needed to Knoxville.
"You talk about discipline in the program, here's the discipline we've got: zero tolerance. Zero tolerance when it comes to class attendance, when it comes to tutors, when it comes to academic appointments, weight room, training room, when you go eat, the dining area, the meal's mandatory," he said earlier this month, according to 247Sports. "There's zero tolerance. If you're one second late, that's late, get you a 5 a.m. (workout) the next morning. That's what we're operating on right now in talking about changing the culture."
But it started long before hiring season.
The players saw what happened with bungled coaching search, fan uprising, dismissal of former athletic director John Currie and a circus that was the early part of the Tennessee offseason. In a strange way, though, the fiasco with Greg Schiano after the regular season was the best thing that ever happened to Tennessee. Instead of an average coach in Schiano, the Vols committed to a full rebuild. New athletic director Phillip Fulmer dedicated the early part of his tenure to change from the ground up. The Vols wound up with a man who has built his career from the ground up first as a high school coach, then as an analyst and through the assistant ranks under some of the best coaches in college football.
It's not lip-service when the Tennessee contingent refers to culture change, toughness and attitude. That's the new reality on Rocky Top because that's who Pruitt is.
There's no sizzle at Tennessee now, and that's the way Pruitt likes it. If the dedication to Pruitt from the administration stays true to form, the steak is now being thrown on the grill.
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