HOOVER, Ala. — The road back to national relevance — or even relevance within its own conference — won't be an easy one for the Tennessee football program. For the better part of the past 18 seasons, coaches, players and fans alike have been chasing a winning consistency that hasn't been around for quite some time.
That fact hasn't been lost on the Volunteers' current head coach.
Jeremy Pruitt knows the tradition of Tennessee football — multiple national championships, widely considered a top-20 program of all time — but he, as well as anyone associated with the team, is also aware of the present: The Vols have a 55-57 record since 2010.
It's been two decades since Tennessee appeared in nearly 94% of The Associated Press polls from 1990 to '99. That was a time when the only consistently successful opponent appearing regularly on the Vols' schedule was Florida. Now, though, Alabama is one of the top two programs in the country. Georgia is right behind the Crimson Tide, and Florida remains relevant, with the Gators in the top 10 in last season's final poll.
On top of that, rivals once considered lower-tier Southeastern Conference programs, such as Kentucky and Vanderbilt, are on par with Tennessee. Vanderbilt has won three straight in the series, and although the Vols knocked off the 11th-ranked Wildcats last year in Knoxville, Kentucky won 10 games last season and has been trending upward under coach Mark Stoops.
Now in year two of his own rebuilding project, Pruitt understands the foundation necessary to get the Vols at least on the level of the rivals they once dominated, prior to tackling the giants — Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
"When I was growing up, Tennessee was one of the premier programs in the country, and that's still the expectations of the fans, of everybody associated with the athletic department, our coaching staff and our players," Pruitt said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. "You know, but what comes with that, a lot of it has to do with who you play. And this league is very competitive.
"We have very good coaches in this league. Probably, it's more competitive now than it's ever been. There's good players, so we've got to do our part. And we have a plan as a staff, you know, and we've got to execute the plan. Our players, they believe in our vision and the kids that we're recruiting. And it takes a lot that goes into it, and we're continuing to work our plan."
The Vols went 5-7 last season, which was followed by changes to Pruitt's staff. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton left to become head coach at Western Kentucky and was eventually replaced by Jim Chaney, who spent the past three seasons at Georgia and is in his second stint at Tennessee.
After realizing a need to delegate more duties, Pruitt — who spent a decade as a college football assistant before taking on his first head coaching job when he was hired at Tennessee — hired Derrick Ansley as defensive coordinator and secondary coach.
Tennessee players have started to see the shift in the culture for a program on its fourth head coach this decade. They've also seen a shift in the head coach, believing Pruitt seems more comfortable in his role of leader.
"I think he has been around us a lot more, and I think he has talked with players individually," senior linebacker Darrell Taylor said on Tuesday. "As we leave, we do exit interviews and he gets with players and gets to know them, spends like an hour with them just talking about football or just talking to them about life. I think we have built a better relationship than we had last year, and I think that has been helpful for a lot of our players."
Added senior linebacker Daniel Bituli: "It has been really hard with the coaching changes and everything that hasn't been involved with football. We are really excited with where we are heading. Coach Pruitt and his staff have done a great job at communicating what needs to be done in order to win games. The guys in the locker room are focused on his leadership. We are just following his lead, and he will take us there."