KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt’s mission is to get the Volunteers back to the status they enjoyed when his new boss was roaming the sidelines.
Pruitt took over as Tennessee’s coach Thursday, capping a tumultuous search in which Phillip Fulmer replaced John Currie as athletic director . Tennessee is coming off one of its most disappointing seasons ever and hasn’t won the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division title since 2007, the year before Fulmer was forced out as the Vols’ coach.
“There was a time and place that this university was feared among the SEC teams,” said Pruitt, who has spent the last two seasons as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “My goal as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee is to get us back to that point.”
Nobody’s feared Tennessee lately.
The Vols opened this season in the Top 25 but finished 4-8 to set a school record for losses , as they went winless in SEC competition for the first time since the league formed in 1933. Those results led to the Nov. 12 firing of Butch Jones , who went 34-27 in five seasons.
Tennessee followed up its poor season with a tumultuous coaching search that grew more embarrassing as it dragged on.
Pruitt, who has been an assistant on four different national championship teams, believes he can get Tennessee back to the heights it reached in the 1990s and early 2000s when Fulmer was coaching the team. This marks Tennessee’s fourth coaching search since Fulmer’s exit.
“Your expectations aren’t near what mine are,” Pruitt said. “I’ll tell you right now, my expectations are to win every game we play. That’s the expectation I have.”
Pruitt, 43, agreed to a six-year deal that will pay him $3.8 million annually plus various benefits such as an expense allowance.
He will spend this month working on his new job while also maintaining his status as Alabama’s defensive coordinator through the College Football Playoff . Pruitt said he would focus on boosting a Tennessee recruiting class that has been decimated by recent defections. When a dead period in the recruiting calendar arrives Dec. 18, Pruitt can turn his attention to Alabama.
Fulmer said he didn’t mind the fact that Pruitt will still be working with Alabama through the playoff. He said Pruitt’s playoff presence would showcase Tennessee’s program.
Tennessee could use the good publicity after what’s happened the last month as the Vols searched for Jones’ replacement.
Currie was close to hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano on Nov. 26 before that deal fell through amid a public backlash.
Reports linked Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm to Tennessee’s vacancy, but both stayed with their teams. North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren agreed to a new contract with the Wolfpack after speaking with Tennessee officials. Currie met last week with Washington State’s Mike Leach and was suspended the next day as Tennessee investigates whether it can fire him for cause.
Fulmer took over the search and eventually zeroed in on Pruitt.
“His energy and his enthusiasm and his background and his intensity appealed to me greatly,” Fulmer said.
Pruitt has been Alabama’s defensive coordinator since 2016 after spending two seasons in the same role at Georgia. Alabama led the nation in scoring defense and ranked second in total defense last year. This season, Alabama again leads the nation in scoring defense and ranks second in total defense .
“He is hard-working, dedicated and organized with exceptional knowledge of the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “He is an excellent recruiter who does a great job developing players and earning their respect. He will do a great job at Tennessee and we wish him the best.”
Pruitt also was defensive coordinator for Florida State’s 2013 national championship team, which led the nation in scoring defense. He worked an initial stint on Alabama’s staff from 2007-12, when he helped the Crimson Tide win national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
His blue-collar approach to the game won Fulmer’s admiration.
“It’s hard to be cute and win in this conference, and as you can tell, Coach is not a very cute guy,” Fulmer quipped.
Pruitt’s football background actually started long before his college career. Pruitt grew up regularly watching film and studying the game as a son of Dale Pruitt, a longtime Alabama high school coach.
“My other son’s a high school coach, and they grew up in the fieldhouse,” Dale Pruitt said. “We didn’t have babysitters. They went with me. I don’t hunt. I don’t fish very much. I’m a terrible golfer. (Football’s) what they were used to, doing the X’s and O’s and all that. … That was their passion since they were very small.”
That passion never left Pruitt and now has this former elementary school physical education teacher running an SEC program in need of a boost.
“He told me he wanted to win championships,” Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport said. “And I told him, make no bones about it, Tennessee expects you to.”