Roy Exum: The Vols Ain't Dead

Thursday, January 21, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Matt Hayes, a writer for the website, was blistering in his view of what has been allowed to happen to the once-mighty University of Tennessee football program just hours after coach Jeremy Pruitt went down in flames on Monday. “I’ve got some harsh words for those in power at Tennessee, something they don’t want to hear but better embrace. It’s not the 1990s anymore. Tennessee will never be elite again,” Matt wrote.

“After yet another coach failed to make it work on Rocky Top,” Matt reasoned, “and Jeremy Pruitt was fired after 3 seasons and amid an NCAA investigation, it can no longer be denied: The days of Tennessee consistently winning big and competing at the highest level of college football are long gone.”

Matt claims he said the same thing three years ago “when the Vols made their 4th hire in 10 years and will say it again and again until those on Rocky Top can hear it loud and clear. Until the most relentless, raucous, and thin-skinned fan base (I say this lovingly, Vols fans) in all of college football finally and humbly capitulates … It’s over, folks.”

That, my friends, is simply not the truth. Now, I’ll buy “start over,” because UT football is really, really sick today, and has no other choice in what will include a brutal woodshed whipping for out-and-out cheating. Vol lovers must recognize there is no easy fix; this rebuild must start from raw dirt, but never forget UT has everything it takes to win except for the greatest commodity of all – the right people.

Having been an ardent disciple of Southeastern Conference football for a half-century, with quite a backlog of memories I might add, I remember a walk across Florida Field on September 16, 1984. It was on a Sunday and it was hot. But that wasn’t why Charley Pell was walking slow … he’d just been fired.

Our friend Charley was in his sixth season after building a miserable Florida football program into a giant. When Pell was hired away from Clemson “for really big bucks” in 1979, his first team was win-less (0-10-1), but the next year Pell’s Gators promptly jumped to 8-4.

In the next three years UF went 7-5, 8-4, and 9-2-1. Then the truth was revealed, Pell was an “outlaw.” After the 1982 season, it was learned the NCAA was investigating the Gators. The ’83 Gators lost just twice but Pell was told he could coach the ’84 team before resigning at the end of the season. But no. Florida president Marshall Criser found out Pell & staff had created 110 NCAA violations. He canned Charley in less than 15 minutes.

And that brings us to the long walk across Florida Field on that Sunday in September. “And you know what?” yelped Charlie, “We never had to do it (cheat). We would still have won!” In 1984, with interim coach Galen Hall at the helm, Charley’s Gators won the first-ever SEC football championship at Florida. But Charley wasn’t there and he never, ever, coached again.

Oh, the Gators’ first-ever championship was vacated quickly, and the choking NCAA sanctions assured the Gators would never win more than seven games in the next seven seasons, but I’ll   always remember Charley Pell made the Gators a national power which they remain.

For decades, the lure to gain “an unfair advantage” has persisted in the SEC. The best explanation was this: “Imagine a rural Interstate where the speed limit is 60 MPH. Everybody in the SEC drives about 65 miles per hour and each team watches the others like a hawk. Man … they know exactly how much some coach at another school offers to so-and-so recruit but folks who live in glass hours don’t throw rocks …

“Then some coach becomes really desperate, like Pruitt did when the 2019 Vols were 3-5 at midseason … I was told ‘outlaw’ and UT zooms away from the pack, going about 80 miles per hour. Are you kidding me? The NCAA doesn’t even have to police the conference … four or five of the other schools promptly turn in the speeder …. they even supply ‘proof.’”

I believe that a frustrated Pruitt turned outlaw because he could think of no other way. It’s just come out from several sources that recruits were given McDonald’s to-go bags the minute they appeared on campus for their official ‘visit and the Big Macs were prepared special … you know, with a lot of “lettuce.” Tennessee has clearly been caught cheating and the evidence is overwhelming. Look back and you’ll find by late October the Vols could no longer keep it quiet. UT announced an “internal investigation” just hours before the NCAA investigation leaked.

At Monday’s press conference, embattled athletic director Phillip Fulmer said Pruitt’s recruiting was “really good,” which brought howls of laughter from other SEC coaches who privately confirm Tennessee “is no longer dirty … UT is filthy.”

Look who else was fired on Monday: Inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton are easy, the question whether they did it on their own or were ‘ordered’ to cheat. Deeper damnation is sparked by the inclusion and the involvement of Tennessee’s support staff. It illuminates what seems to be a cartel of sinners.

Also “fired immediately” were quality control coach Larry Harold, director of player personnel Danny Stiff, assistant director of player personnel J.T. Hill, directors of football recruiting Rachel Bell and Bethany Gunn, and assistant directors of recruiting Chantryce Boone and Taylar Hooker.

Better yet, listen to Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops who, when he was asked on a radio show Tuesday “if he saw the Tennessee thing coming and if we (Kentucky) are going to go after any of their recruits now?"

“I have to be careful with my response here," Stoops replied. "Did I see it coming? Yes. I am grateful it came. Does it surprise me? Not one bit.”

Vince Morrow, a Kentucky assistant coach, has recruited mightily against UT coaches and had powerful comments: “I will say this, we will never negative recruit a school, but I can’t say the same for some of the other schools,” he said when asked by The Louisville Courier Journal about head-to-head battles with Tennessee.

“You know what? We’re going to battle. I think that’s a good rival. Wish we could have played them in a bowl game.” Then, while never directly naming Tennessee, he added: “I’ll just say this, we’re always going to be who we’re going to be, and they’re going to be who they’re going to be.”

Late yesterday afternoon came word that four of the best returning players at UT had joined the transfer portal. Linebacker Henry To'o To'o, running back Eric Gray, linebacker Quavaris Crouch and offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson entered the transfer portal Wednesday night. All four were starters and other players are believed to be opting out.

It was also revealed retiring athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who UT officials swear knew nothing about the Pruitt scandal, will be paid $1.3 million through December 2023 even though his resignation will take effect within the next several weeks when a new Athletic Director is chosen. He will be paid half of his annual salary of $900,000 until his contract expires in 2023.

Most Tennessee fans believe Fulmer knew about the shenanigans in the athletic department and, if Phillip did not, he wasn’t doing his job. I suspect this will be contested as the drama continues and some point to Fulmer’s lack of accountability involvement as “just another way that UT has always done things.”

UT football is very, very sick and the recovery process will be painful. I can never remember such a ‘Rocky Low.”

To recap: “I don’t believe that ‘It’s over’ at Tennessee for two-tenths of a second. I can darn well prove it. I go back to the glory years when Bear Bryant dominated the league. He was jokingly accused “as the man who caused more coaches to get fired” than for any other reason.

Now it is Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Alabama that is the scourge. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Vanderbilt’s Derrick Mason, and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp were all paid lucrative buyouts in the past eight weeks, while Pruitt is alleged to have fostered such a host of NCAA violations that he could be fired “for cause” (not to mention Jeremy’s teams just won a total of 10 SEC games in the three years during his tenure.)

Saban brought his “Process” to Alabama in 2006. Since then, his Tiders have won six NCAA titles and his salary is now $9.3 million. But what's the most stunning number is that the 13 other SEC schools have now paid $178 million … yes, one hundred and 78 million … just in football coaches’ buyouts (!) in a frantic effort to hire some Houdini in a bottle who can topple Saban.

Tennessee’s fall into mediocrity has been horrible to watch. The Vols have had four head coaches in the past decade and each fizzled - Pruitt may be the biggest wrong-fit. He tried mightily but the harder he fought to stop the rudderless ship, the worse he screwed it up. The word is that Pruitt has a terrible temper and dares not take an idea or a suggestion well from anyone.

Need proof: In just 29 games, Pruitt’s staff was totally out of whack: Pruitt went through two offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators, three running-back coaches, two co-defensive coordinators, and two special-teams coordinators in a wild three years. And you ask why Tennessee went 3-7 this fall? Hello!

Not in my wildest dreams can I imagine Tennessee as perhaps the worst major program in the nation. Indeed, this is ‘Rocky Bottom.’

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