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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells during the second overtime of their NCAA football game against BYU at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE — Second-year University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt could have been forgiven for believing he was about to face his toughest foe of the season when he walked into Calhoun's On The River to address the Knoxville Quarterback Club on Monday afternoon.

Overseeing two shocking losses in the first two games of the season — the first time that's happened since 1988 to the Big Orange — tends to make the natives restless.

Or as Pruitt noted, "Right now it ain't a whole lot of fun to go to a coffeeshop or go to church."

Maybe not, but at least on this day, with this group, any fear that apathy or anger might overtake this gathering was never on display. In fact, the iconic restaurant's banquet room was so jam-packed by the time Pruitt arrived that the wait staff was still adding a number of 10-person tables just before he entered the room in an attempt to seat and feed more than 250 orange-clad supporters eager to hang on his every word.

"I can make a lot of excuses," he said as he began to critique the 38-30 opening-game loss to Georgia State and the 29-26 double-overtime defeat to Brigham Young this past Saturday.

"When we were busting our tails in fall camp, I didn't envision going 0-2. But that's where we are. The last two weeks are over. We've got 60 minutes to change that."

His contract says he has four seasons after this one to change the direction of UT football, which has pretty much been headed in the wrong direction for a decade or more, ever since current athletic director Phillip Fulmer — whose first hire was Pruitt — was fired as football coach near the close of the 2008 season.

The Volunteers haven't been to a bowl game of any kind since the 2016 season and haven't been to a major bowl since the close of the 1999 schedule.

To return to Monday's opening prayer, delivered by Bryan Wilson: "(Lord), we're tired of suffering. We want some hope."

Sensing his audience's desperate need for such hope, Pruitt told a crowd that seemed heavily weighted toward 50-somethings and older: "We have a very high ceiling and we're not there yet."

He praised wide receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway as being "fantastic leaders."

Pruitt rightly noted, though few fans would look at it this way: "If we were 2-0 instead of 0-2, we'd still have the same warts."

He also said, "I ain't pointing fingers at nobody. I'm pointing them at myself."

And this: "I don't care about the scoreboard. I want to see us play the right way. And we did that for a lot of the (BYU) game."

Grammar aside, it was all enough to make 1965 UT grad Roy Painter say afterward, "It's been tough, but I still have hope we'll turn it around."

Added longtime Knoxville QB Club board member Pat Murphy: "I thought (Pruitt) was great. Very encouraging. Very honest. Obviously the start has been disappointing, but they're young. You have to expect some of this."

Shortly before he arrived to a standing ovation, rumors circulated that Pruitt wouldn't speak for more than eight or nine minutes and might not take more than one or two questions. Instead, he stood at the podium for 27 minutes and fielded at least 10 questions.

And he did it all with a fair amount of humor, such as when someone asked why the Vols defense didn't draw a 15-yard pass-interference penalty in the final seconds of regulation rather than surrender a 64-yard completion that led to the field goal that forced overtime.

Replied Pruitt almost instantly: "You've got to get close enough to them (to interfere with them)."

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Mark Wiedmer

How close the Vols are to turning this thing around may not be known until November. But the first step comes this Saturday against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Murphy, for one, said she believes patience would be a great help at this point.

"We're a very anxious fan base," she said. "We want instant results."

Sixty-six-year-old Jeffrey Counts has followed both UTC football and UT football for most of his life. A 1975 UT grad, he lived in the Scenic City from 1953 to 1960, then moved with his family to a house near Neyland Stadium that "rented for $99 a month. I used to take my dog over to Neyland and play hide and seek with him. You didn't have security then like you do now. I've been a UT fan for about as long as I've been alive."

Recalling that the dog — a Doberman Pinscher named "Doby" — was purchased on Lookout Mountain, Counts also remembered that his mom once taught at East Ridge High School.

As for the future of the Vols football program, Counts said, "I've lived through a lot of these (ups and downs). We'll always come back."

He also expects Pruitt to come back to the Knoxville Quarterback Club for many years to come.

Said Counts: "I think his career will be a long one."

If Pruitt can begin to win games as easily as he won over the Calhoun's crowd, Counts might be right.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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