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AP photo by Sean Rayford / Tennessee's Henry To'o To'o (11), Trevon Flowers (1), Deandre Johnson (13), Kenneth George Jr. (5) and their teammates celebrate an interception return for a touchdown during the Vols' win at South Carolina to open the 2020 season on Sept. 26.

According to Evojets' website, chartering a private jet for eight to 10 passengers for a round-trip flight from Knoxville to Los Angeles would reasonably run you somewhere from $30,000 to $35,000.

Does that mean the University of Tennessee paid any such charter service that amount of money for Volunteers football coach Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, new defensive coaching hire Kevin Steele and possibly others to fly to the Left Coast in a last-minute attempt to convince linebacker Henry To'o To'o — arguably the team's best player — not to enter the NCAA transfer portal?

Not really. One would suspect the Haslam family sent Pruitt and his staffers a Pilot Oil jet, at least as long as they had it back in Knoxville in time to fly Haslam family members and/or friends to Sunday's NFL playoff game between the Haslam-owned Cleveland Browns and the host Kansas City Chiefs.

But that's not really the point. The point is that regardless of how much it cost the UT athletic department to make that trip, if Saturday night reports that To'o To'o is returning to the Vols for his junior year prove true, it was money very well spent.

Beyond that, whatever else has gone wrong with Big Orange football the past few months/years/decades — and what hasn't? — To'o To'o's return wasn't the only bit of good news this weekend in the embattled Pruitt's attempt to reverse his somewhat dysfunctional, divisive, dispiriting, almost monumentally disappointing first three years in Volsville.

Because not only are the Big Orange now set to take the field this fall with To'o To'o, he just might have the help of ridiculously talented defensive end Big Kat Bryant, who announced Saturday that he'll be transferring to Knoxville for two coaching staff reasons: The arrival of Steele from his previous stop at Auburn, and Shelton Felton, the Vols' outside linebackers coach who was also Bryant's high school coach.

Suddenly, it looks as though all those white-hot rumors that Pruitt was about to be canned due to possible NCAA violations are as warm as Friday night's dusting of snow in our area. Suddenly, it would appear that Pruitt now has at least one more season to prove Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer was at least somewhat justifed in extending the coach's contract after just two seasons atop Rocky Top.

Yes, every storyline pouring out of Knoxville since midway through this past season's 3-7, Southeastern Conference-only campaign had screamed of a coach over his head and an administration none too eager to support him. And in the eyes of the perennially suffering UT fans, it's only been made worse by that extended contract.

Landing Bryant and convincing To'o To'o to return shouldn't necessarily prevent one from continuing to wonder how wise of a move it was to ink Pruitt to a contract extension that would guarantee him more than a $12 million buyout if he's canned prior to the 2021 season. One can also wonder how much longer the 70-year-old Fulmer should remain AD for approving such an extension.

Yet perhaps it's also best not to make too much of the COVID-19-tainted season just past. It was what it was, a nightmare for us all. May we be blessed enough not to see it, or any other pandemic, for another 100 years.

That said, this coming season can't look anything like last year if Pruitt expects to see the turning of autumn leaves for a fifth straight autumn in the Smoky Mountains. Losing is one thing, but when each of those seven defeats come by 10 or more points, something has to improve dramatically on the field.

The entire UT administration also needs to consider its conduct and image. Someone in the administration clearly let it leak during the 34-13 season-ending home loss to Texas A&M that the school was investigating alleged NCAA recruiting violations under Pruitt. That person needs to be fired. Beyond that, Pruitt shouldn't have been made to twist in the wind for what has now been nearly a month with no word from anyone — Fulmer included — about just what the heck was going on.

It has almost assuredly cost the Vols recruits, possibly coaches, and certainly done nothing to lessen the feeling within Big Orange Nation that its already fragile program is on the verge of total tatters. As for everybody else, they expect the school to substitute the playing of "Rocky Top" with "Send in the Clowns."

Merely return to the news of a little more than a week ago that the school had placed a hiring freeze on the football staff, which meant Pruitt wouldn't be allowed to replace coaches for the two openings he already had on staff, nor could he presumably sign assistants Tee Martin and Brian Niedermeyer to new contracts with their deals expiring.

Strange, perhaps, but not as strange as the Vols reversing course less than a week later to announce that Steele was coming on board, presumably to improve the defensive side of the ball, which had supposedly been Pruitt's strength before he came to Knoxville.

Alas, at least for now, a sort of uneasy peace seems to have come over Pruitt and his program. Maybe the hiring of Steele, a former UT player and coach, was all the Big Orange needed to get this football thing back on track for the first time in more than a decade.

Even so, for all who cling to the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the UT football program seems intent on doing all it can these days to prove that adage wrong.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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