Vols under construction: Tennessee hopes a fresh coat of paint can remodel the program
Phil Fulmer sees himself in Jeremy Pruitt, but will this extreme makeover work out for the Volunteers?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Any reminders of the troubles that infected Tennessee's campus, reputation and football program five months ago have literally been painted over.
"It was maddening," said freshman Michael Burnside last week as he passed by "The Rock," a Tennessee attraction.
Burnside wasn't speaking directly of that 80-ton slab -- unearthed during 1960s construction. But it is significant that, for decades, The Rock has been a campus message board for Vols everywhere to unabashedly express themselves.
All you need is an opinion and a can of Sherwin-Williams.
Five months ago, that edifice at the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Pat Head Summitt Street was painted with Vol Nation's raw vitriol for the world to see. Word leaked in late November 2017 that Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was about to become Tennessee's next coach.
"Then," Burnside recalled, "the whole revolt."
Social media and protesting Vols fans became unhinged. The rest of us cringed. In the deep recesses of the Volunteer soul, there emerged miscast outrage over Schiano's never-proven involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
A large portion of those protestors were faux moral ethicists. They simply didn't care to see Tennessee hire a former Rutgers coach with a 68-67 record who hadn't led a team in five years.
All of them should be embarrassed.
"The whole sports world was kind of turning their back on us, thinking we were just the worst sports fans ever. 'Oh, they don't deserve anybody,'" Burnside said.
On a bright spring day, a short walk from The Rock's latest (much tamer) message, there is little mention of those dark days.
It's like a wall of a different kind has been built to keep out Tennessee's own bad hombres -- memories of that, now-former athletic director John Currie and a large part of Tennessee's reputation.
"We were dangling out there as to what we were going to become," said Phillip Fulmer, the Vols' former national championship coach and a current unifier as Tennessee's new athletic director. "I was watching it happen in real time."
What Tennessee has become is damn fortunate, all things considering. The 43-year-old son of the South who followed Butch Jones is about everything you'd want in a coach.
Jeremy Pruitt grew up 2 ½ hours from the Tennessee campus in Rainsville, Alabama. He played for both his dad -- a legendary Alabama high school coach named Dale -- and Gene Stallings at Bama.
"When I was growing up, Tennessee beat Alabama as many times as Alabama beat Tennessee," Pruitt said. "I know what this place can be."
What it has to be is something more than an SEC afterthought. Tennessee is staking its hopes, dreams and under-construction reputation on it.
Pruitt came up as an assistant at prep powerhouse Hoover (Ala.) High School and eventually owned five national championship rings while serving on the staffs of Jimbo Fisher, Mark Richt and Nick Saban.
He has never been a college head coach, but Tennessee wasn't exactly in a leverage position five months ago. Fulmer went with his gut.
"We needed a tough guy who loved to coach and recruit," Fulmer said. "There is a great saying out there, 'It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one gets the credit.' He's that kind of guy. I felt I was that kind of guy."
That's another way of saying Pruitt is expected to deliver a facsimile of what Fulmer left behind -- 152 victories from 1992-2008 that included five SEC East crowns, two SEC titles and the 1998 national championship.
Those expectations are not lost on Pruitt.
"Even now when you recruit kids that are 16-, 17-, 18-years-old, really the last time Tennessee was relevant in the SEC … they were 5, 6, 7," Pruitt said.
It's just the long, torturous road it took to get to this point.
"I don't think it matters," Pruitt said simply. "There's a reason we're here."
Jones was a decent man and good coach but never quite fit the role. There were whispers he didn't get what it took to win in the SEC. Despite that drum-beat out of Knoxville, Jones wasn't incompetent. His five-year stay put in perspective how bad it had gotten at Tennessee.
Jones and former AD Dave Hart Jr. "got us out of a ditch -- a bad ditch," Fulmer said.
We are now witnessing a rising star diving into one helluva starter job. Nothing less is being asked of Pruitt than resurrecting a Southern football institution.
"I saw the result from afar of the very worst," Fulmer said. "[Lane] Kiffin, [Derek] Dooley -- it was a grabbing of straws, almost, to fix this. you fix it with hard work and fundamentals and culture and building from the inside out. You just don't go cherry pick someone for the job and say, 'Go do it.'"
Kiffin stayed for a year (2009). Dooley lasted three (2010-12). In the last decade or so, the Vols were never aligned. Since 2008, there have been four coaches, three presidents and four ADs.
As the only first-time head coach at Tennessee since Fulmer, Pruitt's career arc is trending upward. Vols everywhere are merely trying to catch a ride. The new coach is coming off a national championship season as Alabama's defensive coordinator. Four times in the last five seasons -- with three different teams -- Pruitt's defenses have finished either No. 1 in scoring defense or No. 1 in pass defense.
It's no secret the Vols will run the ball and play defense just like God and General Neyland intended the game to be played. Those are reflections of the man who hired Pruitt. Like Fulmer, Pruitt is stoic, defense-minded, committed to the daily grind and completely immersed in what it takes to win in the SEC.
"One of the things he's really been saying is, 'We want our opponents to leave the field saying, 'We never want to play them again,''" senior defensive end Kyle Phillips said.
Save your pity for the past. Tennessee is back because, it some ways, it can't sink much further.
"I don't know about healing," said senior linebacker Quarte Sapp. "We needed to do better than 4-8. Nobody signed the National Letter of Intent to go 4-8."
Pruitt was going to be a head coach somewhere soon. That it came at Tennessee is certainly an indicator of his ability but also a commentary on the situation.
In the aftermath of Jones' firing, the team agreed as a group to stay off social media. Good call. For almost two months from the day Jones was fired (Nov. 12), the program did not have a full-time coach.
Defensive line coach Brady Hoke took over as the interim. Pruitt juggled both jobs after his hiring in early December until after the College Football Playoff National Championship. Even then he politely refused to talk to media on the floor of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Pruitt was concerned questions about Tennessee would take away from the moment.
"When it became 24 hours or 36 hours before the game, I actually told [the Tennessee staff], 'Ya'll got it,' Pruitt recalled. "'Don't call me. I'm going to be focused with all my attention on this.'"
The speculation was over the top for Tennessee fans who traditionally overvalue their program. So much so that it's reasonable to ask: Would an assistant coach like Pruitt have made it past the scrutiny of Tennessee's man-in-the-street search committee in November?
Remember, this is a fan base that was convinced Jon Gruden was a possibility. For the record,. In the wake of the troubles, though, Pruitt became a conquering hero.
First impressions are good. If work ethic was a win-loss record, Pruitt would be 12-0. It's rare that the new coach spends the night in his own bed.
In fact, a large part of the staff sleeps at the office.
"For one, we're all really such good friends," Pruitt said. "None of their wives are in town [yet]. We're doing ball. We know we have a huge task at hand. If you look up and it's a little later than you thought, instead of walking down and driving 10 minutes, we all got to staying here."
Fulmer has made the transition, and he's not requiring his new coach to do much as externally -- for now. There will be a time when Pruitt realizes the demand for his time.
"He needs to recruit and coach football," Fulmer said. "He doesn't need to be taking Rotary Club meetings all over the state."
There are reminders of the coach's impending celebrity: The Knoxville News recently assembled a word cloud of Pruitt's first six spring press appearances.
"It's amazing," Pruitt mused. "Fourteen years ago I was a kindergarten teacher."
If it all works, Fulmer and Pruitt will be a powerful pair. The new coach sports a quiet competency. The old coach oozes power and swagger. Ask him about his Harley.
For both, it's all about ball. When Pruitt said he had lined up eight assistants within a day of his hiring, Fulmer dispatched a pair of private school planes across the country to pick them up.
Most of those elite eight were in town by the night after Pruitt was hired.
"In that sense, he is like me," Fulmer said. "I've painted the fields, been an academic coordinator, been the recruiting coordinator, assistant head coach. He knows what it all looks like."
If this is what healing looks like, grab a bucket of paint. The Rock is ready to display orange optimism again.
"I think this place has so much tradition that we can come back out and fix whatever's been done," Burnside said. "It may not be this year, but some time in the near future, we'll be good again."
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