The increasing stillness and puzzling darkness that has blanketed the University of Tennessee for the past month cannot go on for much longer without finding its tipping point. The prideful fan base of those whose “blood runneth orange” will not allow it and, with a bewildered media detecting little signs of life since a hapless Tennessee managed a 42-17 win over a badly undermanned Vanderbilt on Dec. 12, the mystery and the misery only heighten.
On the day the Vols won just the third victory in a 10-game abbreviated season, the best running back on the team – Eric Gray – was said to be “unavailable.” That’s it, nothing more nor since.
World got out UT was subject to an “internal” investigation, which was then joined by an NCAA inquiry. Texas A&M came to Knoxville for a season-ending 34-19 win on Dec. 19 and you would have found a more stimulating crowd in a funeral home.
Embattled coach Jeremy Pruitt, right or wrong, has been left twisting in the wind. Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer has allowed the biggest public relations disaster since Johnny Mayors was knifed, and Tennessee will pay for its lack of candor and openness with its fan base for years to come.
The popular theory is that Tennessee is trying to make a case to fire head coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause, rather than cough up a $12 million buyout. When UT hired Auburn’s Kevin Steele as “a defensive coach” some days ago, it said more about a lack of character and integrity in the athletic program than ever, and was an indication someone is calling the plays rather than Fulmer.
The Athletic is, in my thinking, the best sports website in America. It is a subscription site, which is to say I subscribe to it, in the same way Sports Illustrated comes to my house, but it is all digital. Anyone who loves college or pro sports should take a peek … theathletic.com … because I find it a treat.
David Ubben is a better than average staff writer at The Athletic and he has completed a survey of Tennessee football fans who enjoy both The Athletic and Tennessee football as much as I do. Understand the Vol fans pay a subscription fee to the Athletic because they want the most solid news they can get, versus Dave and Buster’s call-in show every Thursday night with guest gawkers “Alabama Mabel” and Quick-to-Speak Charlie.
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THE ATHLETIC'S TENNESSEE FAN SURVEY RESULTS
(Note: These results of a survey conducted by staff writer David Ubben appeared on “The Athletic” sports website Jan. 14, 2021. The results come from 579 responses.)
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By David Ubben, Staff Writer, TheAthletic.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A lot can change in 10 months.
That’s as true inside Tennessee’s football program as almost anywhere. The last time fans flooded to take The Athletic’s Vols football survey, spirits were high. Optimism abounded. The Vols weren’t back yet, but they were on their way, eager to begin what Jeremy Pruitt referred to as “the decade of the Vols” in a victorious Gator Bowl locker room barely a year ago. Nearly every response to a question asking fans to describe the program referred to ascension or an upward trajectory.
Now, Tennessee is in a lengthy, awkward stare-down with an internal investigation and a potential coaching search.
Ten of the 579 respondents to this month’s survey questions used the term “rudderless” in response to the open-ended question.
“Stuck between a rock and a hard place. Pruitt doesn’t seem like the answer, but changing coaches this quickly and at this stage of the offseason also doesn’t seem prudent,” wrote Taylor D., who added he thought Pruitt deserved a “prove it” year in 2021.
Several other respondents, 21 to be exact, used a less kind descriptor: “dumpster fire.” “Lost” was a word used by 28 more respondents.
“Normal, and by that I mean, in complete disarray,” wrote Connor T.
“The program is off-kilter like a piece of furniture assembled at home. The parts are there. Not all of them fit just right, and there is no master craftsman to hone or shape them into a stable, fully functional, reliable piece,” wrote Derek M. “At the present, leadership seems to be lacking from each level including the AD, coaches and players.”
Tennessee fans’ perception of their beloved program has changed quite a bit since March. Let’s take a closer look at the results of the post-2020 fan survey:
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HOW WOULD YOU RATE JEREMY PRUITT’S PERFORMANCE AS TENNESSEE’S HEAD COACH THUS FAR?
(Note: Ratings are scaled from ‘5’ (excellent) to ‘1’ (poor)
2: 49.6 percent
3: 29.4 percent
1: 19.5 percent
4: 1.4 percent
5: 0.2 percent
-- In March of 2020, nearly 80 percent of fans rated Pruitt’s performance as either a four or a five. Not a single respondent rated Pruitt below a three.
-- In the January 2021 poll – just out -- just 1.6 percent of fans rated Pruitt a four or a five. Almost 70 percent of respondents voted Pruitt either a two or a one. College football has always been a “what have you done for me lately?” business, but that’s a stark drop in just one season.
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SHOULD JEREMY PRUITT RETURN AS TENNESSEE’S HEAD COACH FOR THE UPCOMING 2021 SEASON:
No: 61.1 percent
Yes: 38.9 percent
For obvious reasons, this wasn’t on the survey on March of 2020. Traditionally, coaches on six-game winning streaks don’t face questions about their job status.
But the idea that Tennessee fans are unanimously demanding change doesn’t hold up to the data we collected. The majority of Tennessee fans in The Athletic’s survey do favor a change, but many respondents also felt three years wasn’t quite enough and he deserves more time, despite the lack of progress and the struggles in 2020.
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HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE PROGRAM’S PERFORMANCE IN 2020?
(‘5’ as excellent, ‘1’ as poor.)
1: 61.5 percent
2: 35.8 percent
3: 2.2 percent
4: 0.3 percent
5: 0.2 percent
This was a year full of challenges for everyone, but unsurprisingly, fans were not pleased with the Vols’ 3-7 campaign. The SEC-only schedule and pandemic didn’t cause fans to excuse the Vols’ six-game losing streak, which tied a school record. Only 2.7 percent of fans rated the season above a two.
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HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE OVERALL ‘STATE’ OF THE U.T. FOOTBALL PROGRAM?
(‘5’ as excellent, ‘1’ as poor.)
2: 49.6 percent
1: 27.6 percent
3: 21.8 percent
4: 0.9 percent
5: 0.2 percent
Last March, more than 95 percent of respondents said either a three or four. Now, more than 77 percent of respondents said either a one or two. Just 1.1 percent of respondents said the program was at either a four or a five. “I’m very curious what these fans would have voted at the end of the 2017 season,” wrote Ebben. “From my perspective, the program itself is in better shape now in terms of its pure roster, but there are definitely far more concerns now than there were in March.”
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HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PROGRAM?
There wasn’t a complete absence of positive vibes, but it was nearly universal in March. The answers to this question were overwhelmingly negative and some fans had … a lot to say. Many respondents left several-hundred-word responses to the question.
* -- Matthew B. summed up what many fans said, but did so with brevity: “I’d say that there’s genuinely not much to look forward to right now.”
Several fans also said they felt OK at the end of the season but have lost a lot of confidence in the program after all the player departures and the seemingly endless investigation and a perceived discord or disorganization among leadership. Others pointed out (fairly, I would say) that with a normal 12-game schedule, 3-7 in the SEC probably looks more like 6-6 or 5-7 when you add a couple of cream puffs. The unrest around Pruitt would be slightly more muted, if so.
Others expressed frustration at Pruitt’s “closing the gap” comment and took it as a request to ignore the scoreboard.
* -- Scott H. called the program “a Ferrari stuck in the mud.”
* -- “The winning streak at the end of 2019 may look like a mirage now, but we’ll never know what this team may have looked like in a normal 2020 with uninterrupted spring and fall camps on top of a normal nonconference and SEC schedule. In a normal 2020 season, I strongly believe that this team wins at least eight games and makes a pretty solid bowl game,” said Cam S., who said he expects next year’s team to win eight games, too.
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A FEW MORE CHOICE REMARKS
* -- “It’s hard to describe the state of the program without knowing the results of the investigation, but the fact that there is an investigation in the first place is a bad sign. The player defections are also troubling, as was Jarrett Guarantano’s complete lack of development. There are a handful of inexplicable losses, which also is cause for concern. Plus, Jeremy apparently doesn’t know how to wear a COVID mask or teach the defensive secondary how to cover a slant pass. Finally, I’m dog tired of losing to Georgia, Florida, Bama and now apparently Kentucky. But if you look past those things, we’ve turned the tide against Vanderbilt apparently. God help us.” — Beau H
* -- “Struggling, but not as bad (i.e. end of the world) as #VolTwitter and message boards would have you believe. I believe we have the support needed from the university level, the resources, and structure to run a successful program (credit to Pruitt), and talent (although there is clearly a gap, most notably at QB).” — Marty H.
* -- “In a word, delusional. In my thoughts, at one point, more than 20 years ago, we had celebrity status, but now we are aging rockstars and need to get a new album out there with a new collaboration. I don’t know how much I like supporting the Axl Rose of College Football.” — Jake H.
* -- “Top 15 roster, top 10 facilities, top 10 fan base, there is just something missing. Tennessee isn’t Alabama and should not be trying to replicate 2012 Bama. Need a new PHILOSOPHY on offense.” — James M.
* -- “Fractured and on unstable ground.” The vocal minority of the fan base further weakens the program with constant attacks on coaches and the administration for perceived lack of action.” — Preston D.
* -- “I am apathetic and have no plans to attend a home game for the foreseeable future.” — Richard J.
* -- “Vanderbilt +” — Theo W.
It’s worth noting there were, uh, quite a few responses unfit for print.
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WILL JEREMY PRUITT WIN AN SEC TITLE AT TENNESSEE?
No: 91.4 percent
Yes: 8.6 percent
Tennessee’s 2020 season cost Pruitt quite a bit of confidence from fans. When I asked this question in March, 76 percent of fans felt he would bring an SEC title to Rocky Top and almost 25 percent of fans felt he would win a national title during his time as the Vols’ head coach.
The 3-7 season in 2020 caused that number to plummet by almost 70 percent.
I didn’t bother to ask about national titles this time around.
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HOW WOULD YOU RATE YOUR CONFIDENCE IN THE LEADERSHIP OF THE UNIVERSITY? (THIS INCLUDES CHANCELLOR DONDE PLOWMAN, PRESIDENT RANDY BOYD, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR PHIL FULMER, AND HEAD COACH JEREMY PRUITT)
(‘5’ Excellent – ‘1’ poor)
1 … 24.5 percent
2 … 31.4 percent
3 … 30.2 percent
4 … 12.1 percent
5 … 1.7 percent
-- In March 2020, only 2.8 percent of respondents’ confidence was below a three. Now, that number is 55.9 percent.
-- In March 2020, 23.5 percent of respondents rated their confidence in leadership as a five. Now, that number plummeted to 1.7 percent. Just 13.8 percent of respondents had above-average confidence in leadership.
* -- “I have full confidence in Chancellor (Donde) Plowman and (president) Randy Boyd. I have zero confidence in Phillip Fulmer or Pruitt. Fulmer loves Tennessee but always preserves himself above UT. Pruitt is way over his pay grade,” wrote Bryan C.
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WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CONCERN WITH TENNESSEE’S FOOTBALL PROGRAM RIGHT NOW?
The two big themes that emerged in this question: Stability and leadership at every level. Like Taylor D. mentioned earlier, many fans wrote about wrestling with the tension of wanting to stop the revolving door of coaches and their own belief that Pruitt is not the long-term answer.
* -- Eli K. writes, “I’m very worried about our coaching position. Pruitt has had a shaky first three years, and I’m not sure he’s ever going to win a division title. But I also do not believe there is a clear upgrade available out there to hire. And firing Pruitt will absolutely cause years more upheaval …
“The turnover that happens after a coaching change always seems to set us back years. I’d like to see what Pruitt could do with competent QB play. Pruitt absolutely bears most of the responsibility for not finding and developing a QB. But that said, if you put Josh Dobbs on this team, and change absolutely nothing else, I think they would have gone 8-2 this year.”
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HERE ARE SOME MORE CHOICE REMARKS:
* -- “Short term, I would say the recruiting investigation. It is negatively affecting the assistant coaching search and the transfer recruiting. Long term, it’s UT’s inability to compete with the Bamas, Floridas and Georgias of the world. Right now, we are losing the recruiting war against those teams not only in the Southeast region, but also in our own state. Tennessee should not be losing in-house talent to out-of-state teams. From my perspective, Tennessee either needs to out-recruit or out-scheme its opponents, and right now we’re not doing either.” — Chris N.
* -- “Alignment between the power sources within the university and player development. The in-fighting prevents a stable foundation for any coach. Tennessee can always recruit well, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen players and teams improve consistently game over game and year over year.” — Brad F.
* -- On the football side of things, it’s trying to win like the SEC giants win but without the same quality of players they have. Administratively, it’s control. Who’s in charge? Do they know they’re in charge? Are they technically in charge while someone else pulls strings behind the scenes? — Weston D.
* -- “Pruitt does not manage his staff well. He was unable to convince them to take pay cuts off the field and he won’t let them manage their specialties on the field.” — Michael W.
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IF TENNESSEE ELECTED TO MAKE CHANGE AT HEAD COACH, WHO SHOULD IT BE?
-- Hugh Freeze: 32.3 percent
-- Gus Malzahn: 15.2 percent
-- Tom Herman: 11.7 percent
-- Jamey Chadwell: 8.3 percent
-- Billy Napier: 3.8 percent
-- Matt Campbell: 2.2 percent
-- Lane Kiffin: 1.7 percent
“I should be clear on these results,” the author writes. “The survey offered Freeze, Malzahn, Herman and Chadwell as the four given responses with an open “other” response that allowed for write-ins. And there were a lot of write-ins.
Freeze was the clear winner with more than double the votes of any other candidate, but there was far from a consensus. Napier was the leading vote-getter among write-in ballots, but there were plenty of other names who surfaced in the results.
Also receiving votes: Tom Allen, Will Healy, Joe Brady, Luke Fickell, Lance Leipold, ‘God,’ ‘Anyone but Jeremy Pruitt’, ‘Anyone but Hugh Freeze’, Jeff Fisher, ‘Someone that has not just been fired’, Tee Martin, Bill O’Brien, Josh Heupel, Bob Stoops, P.J. Fleck, Art Briles, Justin Wilcox, Phillip Fulmer, Jerod Mayo, Randy Sanders, and Bronco Mendenhall.
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HOW MANY REGULAR SEASON GAMES DO YOU EXPECT TENNESSEE TO WIN IN 2021?
(Note: This assuming a 12-game regular season.)
1-4: 16.1 percent
5: 24.9 percent
6: 25.4 percent
7: 18.8 percent
8: 13 percent
9: 1.4 percent
10-12: 0.5 percent
-- Last March, not a single respondent picked the Vols to finish any worse than 7-5.
-- Now, as fans look ahead to 2021, 41 percent of fans see a losing season and 25.4 percent more see a 6-6 season.
-- Only a bit more than 32 percent of respondents expect Tennessee to enjoy a winning season in the fall.
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This survey just appeared on the subscription website, “The Athletic,” where David Ubben and other pros are the most select sports writers in America. The website gives dandy updated news reports in all pro sports and major colleges. It is a joy and I’ve been a reader from the very first day. Please inquire to: Subscription desk at theathletic.com and be advised they have several introductory offers at this time.