KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football team had just finished off a 7-6 season in 2009, one that ended with the Volunteers winning five of their last seven regular-season games prior to a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
There was a lot of excitement buzzing around the program with then-head coach Lane Kiffin set to bring in a top-10 recruiting class. Kiffin had brought a swaggering style and a willingness to breed a level of confidence (if not cockiness) into the proud program, becoming a welcome sight for a fanbase that had witnessed Tennessee stumble in its final few seasons under previous head coach Phillip Fulmer. The seven wins included victories over nationally ranked Georgia and South Carolina as well as a 12-10 loss to eventual national champion Alabama that wasn't decided until a last-second field-goal attempt was blocked.
Kiffin was different; he was the anti-Fulmer in a sense.
But then Kiffin was gone, leaving in the middle of the night. Since then, the problems within the program have only grown.
Tennessee enters Saturday's game against Mississippi State tied with Kentucky and Vanderbilt for the fewest wins in the Southeastern Conference this decade (21).
No team in the SEC East has finished last in the division more this decade than Tennessee's three times. (Kentucky and Vanderbilt have done so twice.) Counting interims Kippy Brown (2010), Jim Chaney (2012) and Brady Hoke (2017), seven head coaches have been in charge of the program in that stretch, with five having coached at least one game.
What has made the situation worse is that this decade, Tennessee has been better known for a series of incidents off the field than its play on the field. Today, the Times Free Press looks at four days (and one name) that have shaped the program this decade:
Jan. 12, 2010
It was late in the evening when word started to circulate that Kiffin would be departing for the University of Southern California, his "dream job." The reaction was fierce, with students burning couches on campus and players walking out of Kiffin's final meeting with the team. Kiffin and his father Monte, the team's defensive coordinator, were so concerned about the situation that Lane reportedly didn't leave the football facility until 4 the next morning.
"When I took that job, I knew that some people at Tennessee were going to be upset," Kiffin said in an article he wrote for Athletes For God in 2018. "People had developed relationships with me, like the chaplain who sent me Rick Warren's book. What I didn't expect was a full riot to ensue on campus. I think sometimes we embellish our memories, but that night there was literally a riot in Knoxville, with people running in the streets and lighting things on fire.
"It was confusing to me, because people change jobs every day. A guy goes from McDonalds to Burger King, or from BP to Exxon, or Delta to United, and this happens every day. In fact, the reporters who criticized me had changed networks themselves. But here I was in a police escort, trying to get safely out of town, asking myself why there was so much animosity towards me.
"I took the approach that I'd rather have them burning things over my departure than celebrating that I'm gone, but that's still not an easy way to start a new job. And even though the people inside the UT program still respected me and kept in touch with me, nobody wants to burn bridges on their way out, even if it's with fans."
Sept. 25, 2017
Tennessee had struggled through a three-year tenure of Dooley, with the current Missouri offensive coordinator compiling a 15-21 mark before being fired prior to the 2012 season finale. He was replaced at Tennessee by Butch Jones, who had again instilled some hope with his "Brick by Brick" catchphrase. The approach had worked in his first four seasons, as Tennessee went from five wins his first campaign to seven in 2014, followed by consecutive nine-win seasons in 2015 and '16.
A year later, though, it appeared the pressure had started to get to Jones, who had started the season 3-1, with the loss a last-second defeat at Florida. Rumors were circulating about an alleged fight in practice between teammates that resulted in one of the players having to miss a game.
Jones initially denied the incident ever happened during his regularly scheduled Monday news conference, stating the player had "fallen on a helmet." But with the conference wrapping up, Jones offered this:
"I think we have to understand what do we want out of our media? This place, with the drama — and again, these are kids, and I think we all have children and we're all adults. Are we focused on Tennessee football from a recruiting standpoint, from all the positive things we've done, from all the positive things this football program brings to the community, this great fan base ... are we in the reality world of TV?
"I think all of us as humans have to self-check ourselves, and you may not like that answer, but I'm a father. I have three boys and I think we sometimes have to put ourselves in a role of a parent as well. And I understand y'all have jobs to do. My expectations as the head football coach, I'm the caretaker of Tennessee football. I'm here to develop and grow the football program, recruit the best possible student-athletes to represent the University of Tennessee and win football games and graduate our players. That's my responsibility. I take that very seriously. But also, I love our kids and I'm going to protect our players and I'm going to protect our program. And sometimes the negativity is overwhelming.
"If everyone is Vols fans, how do we let our opponents use this in the recruiting process with fake news? And sometimes, again, we have to check ourselves. What are we here for? What's our values and principles that guide our life every single day?
"And I appreciate everyone in this room. You guys have a job to do, and I'm respectful of that. I'm friends with a lot of you guys in the room and I appreciate it, but also there comes a certain time where enough is enough. So, thank you. You guys have a great day. I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday and Go Vols."
Jones — who was 33-22 with the Vols at that point — dropped five of his next six games and was fired after a Nov. 11 loss at Missouri.
Nov. 26, 2017
The firing of Jones meant Tennessee faced its fourth football coaching search of the decade but first under new athletic director John Currie, who had been on the job for just a few months. What transpired was an ugly national disaster that featured multiple coaches being linked to the job and multiple coaches turning down the job. On Nov. 26, 2017, word started to circulate that Currie was finalizing a deal to hire Greg Schiano, which led to a revolt from the fan base for a multitude of reasons ranging from his lackluster record (68-67 at Rutgers; 11-21 with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers) to a reference made in an unsealed testimony in which former Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary said he heard Schiano — an assistant at the time — had witnessed Jerry Sandusky "doing something" to a boy in a shower.
Prosecutors later determined there was nothing to pursue with respect to Schiano, who testified and publicly denied seeing or having knowledge of Sandusky's crimes against children.
But Tennessee fans had started marching in protest and voicing displeasure on social media. A Knoxville coffee shop tweeted it would not allow him entry. Tennessee lawmakers started tweeting, joining in the protest. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary at the time, called Schiano "the guy who covered for Jerry Sandusky" in a Facebook post.
Aug. 24, 2019
After a 5-7 first season leading the Vols, there was a lot of optimism surrounding Pruitt after a successful offseason. He had a top-15 recruiting class. He pried offensive coordinator Jim Chaney from Georgia, and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley from his post of defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. He'd also brought back Tee Martin — quarterback of the Vols' 1998 national championship team — to coach wide receivers.
With a schedule that seemed slightly easier to navigate than previous seasons — the Vols had eight home games, and their toughest nonconference game was against BYU as opposed to West Virginia or Oklahoma — the expectation was Pruitt wouldn't have any trouble guiding the Vols to their first bowl game since 2016.
Until Aug. 24. It was that night that sophomore defensive back Bryce Thompson was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic assault charge after an argument with his girlfriend, resulting in an indefinite suspension that lasted two weeks and three games. He was reinstated on Sept. 11, but didn't play until 10 days later against Florida. The charge was later dismissed.
It was also that night that former linebacker Jeremy Banks had an incident at a Knoxville party downtown, where he was seen on video violently threatening a woman after he was denied entry into a party. The video wasn't released until Oct. 4, three days after another video had been released of Banks being arrested after he was pulled over in the early hours of Sept. 15, the morning after the Vols had won 45-0 win against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Officers discovered Banks had a warrant, which led to the arrest. Banks is later seen in the back of the cop car, making comments to the officers including "Where I'm from, we shoot at cops." He's later seen in the video apologizing for those comments.
The "Great White Buffalo" of this decade has been current Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who has reportedly been linked to the Tennessee opening in three of the past four coaching searches. There has been so much speculation concerning his interest that it's almost too much to unpack.
* Gruden was asked about the opening in 2008 while still coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stating he was happy there. Tennessee had just fired Fulmer, and Gruden had a couple of minor ties to the school, having been a graduate assistant there for a year and his wife Cindy being a former cheerleader for the Vols.
"I've said it from the beginning, this is the only job I've really ever wanted," Gruden said, as quoted by the St. Petersburg Times. "As long as the (Bucs owners) Glazers will have me, I'll be here. I've got a lot of respect for Tennessee. I grew up down there a little bit. My wife is from there. But this is where I want to be, and I can only make myself that clear."
* After Dooley was fired in 2012, the rumors started to circulate again, including one that Gruden had an offer on the table from Tennessee. Again, he shot down the rumors.
"I like what I'm doing," said Gruden — then an ESPN NFL analyst — on the Mike & Mike radio show. "I'm just trying to hang on to the job I have, to be honest with you."
Tennessee settled on Jones after reportedly being turned down by former Louisville and current South Florida coach Charlie Strong; current Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy; and former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.
* Two years after calling Tennessee a "dream job" on ESPN's Paul Finebaum show, Gruden's name again comes up after the firing of Jones in 2017. At one point, he became the betting favorite for the job, with multiple outlets reporting a varying range of interest from Gruden, and on Nov. 26 CBS Sports NFL reporter Jason La Canfora reported Gruden had been in discussions with Tennessee officials about a $10 million per year contract. That same day the reports of Schiano finalizing a deal emerged.
Pruitt was hired on Dec. 5 that year, and Gruden took a 10-year deal worth $100 million a month later to coach the Raiders.