Wiedmer: Pruitt sounds like he'll win more than the UT news conference [videos]

Wiedmer: Pruitt sounds like he'll win more than the UT news conference [videos]

December 8th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

New Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his introductory news conference Thursday in Knoxville.

Photo by Caitie McMekin

POLL: Are you happy with UT's new football coach?

KNOXVILLE — Never let it be said that new Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt wasn't formally warned about the Big Orange Nation's expectation level for outsized success.

Even before Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer officially introduced him as the 26th head coach in Volunteers history, first-year chancellor Beverly Davenport reminded Pruitt of a conversation the two of them shared during the interview process.

"Jeremy told me, 'Make no bones about it, I expect to win championships,'" Davenport recalled. "I replied, 'Make no bones about it, Tennessee expects you to.'"

So much for lowering expectations following the worst season in the school's 121 years of football. Not that Pruitt exactly shied away from the chancellor's bold remarks.

The man who also will remain Alabama's defensive coordinator for as long as the Crimson Tide stay alive in the four-team national playoff said he expects his Vols program pretty quickly to be a "big, fast, physical, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play."

To help make that a swift reality, Pruitt added, "That starts with recruiting, and we started today."

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If Pruitt goes on to win games as easily as he won the news conference, the Vols might reach the SEC title game in his first season.

It won't be that easy, of course. Though no one in the SEC East except South Carolina may be noticeably better a year from now than this season, the Vols must visit Georgia, LSU and those Gamecocks next season, as well as Vanderbilt. That also means big, bad Bama comes to Neyland Stadium, which means it probably will be a stretch for Pruitt to go better than 3-5 within the league in 2018.

But this hire, like most hires due to the firing of the previous coach, isn't so much about next season as the season after that, and the season after that. It's about, to use a phrase of the day uttered by both Fulmer and Pruitt, "changing the culture."

There's little doubt after this season just past that the culture on the field needs changing. You just don't lose eight games for the first time in school history, as well as losing all of your SEC games for the first time ever, without major changes needing to be made.

So there was understandable football talk from both Fulmer and Pruitt regarding "controlling the line of scrimmage" and "dominating up front." Pruitt, having already coached three previous defenses that led the nation in fewest points allowed (2017 and 2016 at Alabama, 2013 at Florida State), also talked about his defense wanting to "dictate what the offense does."

But he also spent at least a fair bit of time talking about something that needs to be talked about much more in most programs: academics.

Pruitt, whose father Dale is a highly regarded high school coach who's worked in both Alabama and Tennessee, said of his recruiting philosophy, "I want guys who want a degree."

He also said of the current players, "We're going to coach them how to go to class. We're going to coach them how to introduce themselves to their professors, because I think that's important. And where to sit in class."

Pruitt said he even talked to them about the first semester final exams they're about to take.

"Let's learn how to finish," he said. "If you've got a 65 (average), let's try to get a 70. If you've got an 88, let's try for a 91."

Not that he was necessarily as robotic and process-driven as his Bama boss, Nick Saban, sometimes seems.

Asked what coaches he may lean on for advice in his first-ever season as a head coach at any level, Pruitt grinned and then deftly observed, "Coach Fulmer's office isn't far from mine."

And when discussing his time as a kindergarten-through-third-grade teacher in the school system in Fort Payne, Ala., Pruitt said, "I taught everybody in the city of Fort Payne how to tie their shoes. After a while, I started to suggest Velcro."

No one will know for sure how all this will turn out until two or three seasons from now. After all, Butch Jones also was hired on Pearl Harbor Day in 2012. But Fulmer deserves high marks for not only embracing a non-head coach such as Pruitt but also turning to a defensive coach to run the Vols for the first time since General Neyland, and that turned out pretty well for UT.

"Eight (SEC) schools beat us last year," Fulmer said, "and six of those coaches were defensive coordinators before they were head coaches."

Sounding like an athletic director more than a coach, Fulmer also said, "We all know that football is the engine that drives the train, and I like my chances with this coach."

A few hours into his tenure, Pruitt seemed to like his chances going forward.

"My expectation," he said, "is to win every game we play."

Make no bones about it, if Pruitt succeeds in that expectation, he'll never hear a single negative word or read a terse tweet from the Big Orange Nation.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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