Common sense somehow prevailed in the Tennessee coaching search.
Tennessee hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt on Thursday, a move that might seem a little out of place considering the Crimson Tide and Volunteers are long-standing traditional rivals.
Those Alabama ties, however, rank around 1,000th on the can't-believe-that-happened list in the 24 days that have transpired since Butch Jones was fired. This search started with dreams of Jon Gruden before going off the tracks with the Greg Schiano hire then went through plot twists you wouldn't see coming on "Game of Thrones." It even led to the firing of athletic director John Currie.
This turned into the handbook for FBS schools to reference on how not to handle a coaching search. Yet in the end, athletic director Phillip Fulmer — who led the Volunteers to their last national championship as a head coach in 1998 — made the most sensible hire with Pruitt, another Nick Saban disciple who allows the university to save face and move on. Yes, everybody needs to move on.
Jeremy Pruitt has been named the 26th head coach of the Tennessee football program.
Welcome to Rocky Top, Coach Pruitt! 🍊🏈December 7, 2017
Success won out. Other programs' success, that is. Look at the other candidates Fulmer considered. Mel Tucker? Saban disciple and defensive coordinator for Kirby Smart (another Saban disciple) at Georgia. Chad Morris? Dabo Swinney disciple. The two best programs in the College Football Playoff era are Clemson and Alabama, and Fulmer put aside traditional rivalries to tap into that success with Pruitt. Smart move. Common sense move.
Ten days ago, this would have seemed impossible given the tenor of this search. One lyric comes to mind:
"Nobody's right if everybody's wrong."
Tennessee fans were right to move on from Jones. They were right to voice displeasure with the Schiano hire, which Currie waited far too long to reveal. The social media mob, however, damaged Schiano's reputation for claims that were never investigated. Backing out could cost the university money later, given there was a memo of understanding. It should have never got to that point. Everything about that day was wrong.
Fulmer was right to take command of a bumbling coaching search that burned through candidates like David Cutcliffe, Mike Gundy and Mike Leach, but are the reports of sabotage true? That will be debated for years to come. Remember, Fulmer was fired after a 5-7 record in 2008. Which direction will this program — which has produced a 57-56 record since Fulmer retired — go next? Given everybody from former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin to the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders played a role in this saga, it can't be wrong.
In the end, Fulmer and Tennessee fans got it right, even if it felt wrong through most of the process. This still isn't anywhere close to how a coaching search should be handled. This can't be declared a home run. It's more of a save.
We're almost 500 words in before digging in on Pruitt, 43, whose hire was well received, given his reputation as a no-nonsense, relentless recruiter who has experience as a defensive coordinator at Florida State and Alabama. The Vols haven't beat the Crimson Tide since 2006, so to even try to look at Pruitt's ties to the school as a strike is nonsense.
Tennessee is following the Saban model. It didn't work at Florida with Will Muschamp or Jim McElwain. It's working at Georgia with Kirby Smart. South Carolina is better with Muschamp now, and Texas A&M is going to try it with Jimbo Fisher. Four former Saban assistants are head coaches in the SEC. It's simply Pruitt's turn in line.
Will this work? Tennessee should be better off than a .500 program in a few years if it affords Pruitt the patience required to be something more. Fulmer should help with that. After all, he called this shot. The Vols haven't won the SEC since 1998 and haven't reached the SEC championship game since 2007.
Pruitt, however, is a first-time head coach at a place where expectations are inherently over the top. He wasn't brought in to be Bama: He's there to beat Bama. Pruitt wasn't the 1,000th choice, but he certainly wasn't first, and that's something else that will be taken away from the wildest coaching search in ... maybe ever.
Fulmer saved further embarrassment with this hire, even if these last 24 days won't be forgotten in Knoxville anytime soon. Common sense somehow prevailed at Tennessee. For now, at least. Can the Vols maintain that?
That's the biggest challenge for Fulmer, Pruitt and the fan base now. Rest assured, everybody will be monitoring with great interest.
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