KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The coaching carousel at Tennessee, unfortunately, continues to turn.
Jeremy Pruitt is the latest head football coach on Rocky Top to find the going more rocky than rosy. Monday afternoon, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman named Kevin Steele as acting head coach in his place. Plowman also said nine people had been fired, including two assistant coaches, Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer. All those fired were hired by Pruitt, she said.
The announcement comes after a weeks-long investigation into potential recruiting violations in the program.
Hired as the 26th head football coach at UT on December 7th of 2017, Jeremy Pruitt has been relieved of his duties as top Vol.
Following successful stints as defensive coordinator at Georgia and Alabama, Pruitt was ready to take a struggling Tennessee program to the next level.
Hired by UT Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer, the national championship coach said before introducing Pruitt, “My obligation to our alumni and our great fans as well as our former and future players who have or will pour their hearts into this program, was to go find the best coach to get our proud football program back to the level of its championship tradition.” That hope, of course, would never come to fruition.
During his introductory news conference, Pruitt seemed up for the challenge. In between blurting out “aight’s” the new and energized coach talked about the goal of winning championships and said, “everybody’s all excited, we’ve got a new football coach, I’m gonna tell you my goal is in five years when I stand up here you’re this excited.” A goal, which as it turns out, will never be realized.
Pruitt would carry that energy the playing field, where he authored two signature wins over ranked opponents in 2018, his first season as head coach. Tennessee would upset Kentucky at home on Nov. 10 and Auburn on the road on Oct. 13.
He was named the National Coach of the Week by the Dodd Trophy following the 24-7 victory over the 11th-ranked Wildcats, while Tennessee’s 30-24 win at No. 21 Auburn was Tennessee’s first upset victory over a ranked team on the road in 12 years.
But the season would end on a sour note with losses to Missouri and in-state rival Vandy. Pruitt’s Vols would finish with a 5-7 record.
Season number two at the helm would not start very well for Pruitt with home losses to Georgia State and BYU.
However, Tennessee would embark on one of the more impressive in-season turnarounds in the country in 2019, finishing the year with six consecutive wins and seven wins in their last eight games. After starting the season 1-4, Pruitt and company would finish 8-5 overall mark and a 5-3 record in the Southeastern Conference.
The Vols capped the season with a remarkable comeback to defeat Indiana, 23-22, in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, becoming the only team in the country to overcome a 13-point deficit in the final five minutes during the 2019 season.
Tennessee finished 23rd in the nation in total defense (334.5) - its best mark in 10 years - and ranked in the top 20 nationally in pass defense (194.0) and interceptions (15).
Tennessee improved by three wins following Pruitt’s debut season and all signs pointed to continued growth by this Jeremy Pruitt led football team.
But the head coach and Vol Nation would soon realize how much of a difference a year can make.
A worldwide pandemic would hit home and Rocky Top would never be the same. Spring practice would be postponed after just one session and fall camp would be consumed by Covid testing, contact tracing and player absences.
Somehow, the Vols and the other Southeastern Conference teams would embark on a very different 10 game All-SEC season.
And that season would start nicely for Tennessee with a road win at South Carolina and a home victory against Missouri. Then, with what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, the Vols would relinquish a first-half lead at Georgia and go on to lose seven of their last eight games.
Compounding the 3-7 record was word that an internal investigation had been launched on the UT campus into possible wrongdoing by the football program in the areas of compliance and recruiting.
It all came to a head for Jeremy Pruitt when he was asked after his team’s season-ending loss to Texas A&M if he should be back as Vols head coach? Pruitt answered, “Yeah, I think absolutely. If you look at the first two years we were here, where we were at when we got here, I’ve said it before from personnel to culture l, what we’re building and I get it, 3-7 is not where we want to be right! But there’s one thing I can say, I can lay my head down on my pillow every night that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to protect everybody in our program.”
Pruitt’s program would have to endure a couple of months of questioning and investigating by UT’s compliance department as well as Kansas-based attorney Michael Glazier and his staff. A probe and its results the coach would ultimately not be able to overcome.
In the modern era, he joins Derek Dooley as Tennessee head coach who would leave the job with a losing record. Pruitt departs with a 16-19 record after three seasons in Big Orange Country.