Dan Fleser: UT Players Move On, But Vol Fans, Administration Still Mired In Past

Thursday, October 21, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

Lane Kiffin paid a visit to Neyland Stadium last Saturday as Ole Miss’ football coach. He left with a win and left behind quite a mess. Kiffin, Tennessee’s former coach, responded to debris-throwing fans as he left the field by tossing his visor into the stands.

Three days later, news surfaced of another former Vols coach seeking a different kind of victory. Jeremy Pruitt is intent on creating a different sort of mess to get the result.

Michael Lyons, the attorney for Pruitt, wrote a letter to the university earlier this month, urging the school to reach a monetary settlement with his client by Oct. 29 or face a lawsuit. The letter, which was obtained by the USA Today Network’s Blake Toppmeyer, threatened UT with the possibility of public embarrassment and “debilitating NCAA sanctions.” 

The same day, Vols defensive back Theo Jackson met with reporters. He played three seasons under Pruitt and noted the difference first-year head coach Josh Heupel has made.

“When Coach Heupel got here, his big thing was positivity,” Jackson said. “It’s more teaching, less yelling. Nobody wants to be cussed out all day.”

Tennessee’s defensive linemen, who are under assistant coach Rodney Garner’s fiery guidance, might hear things differently. However, Jackson made a point with his observation and has backed it with his play. He played all 101 snaps against Kiffin’s Rebels, recording nine tackles and a pass break-up.

Despite missing a game this season, Jackson is second on the team in tackles with 46 and second in tackles for loss (6.5). He also has 1.5 sacks. 

The one game Jackson missed was Oct. 9 against South Carolina. He spent the week watching film with Brandon Turnage, who was his replacement. Turnage responded with 14 tackles and received SEC defensive player of the week honors.

Jackson has moved on from the old coach and is thriving in the atmosphere being created by the new coach.

If only Tennessee’s fans and the university’s administration could make the same sort of transition in the same constructive manner.

The Kiffin effect is bewildering for its longevity. He was UT’s coach for one season and it was 12 years ago. After all those years, he still was able to play a puckish part in bringing out the best and worst of Tennessee’s fan base on Saturday. 

The Pruitt saga, on the other hand, is just sad. He was a poor hire in the first place, the end product of a disastrous coaching search. Regardless of any lawsuit, UT still expects severe NCAA penalties and said so in its termination letters to Pruitt and other staff members. The school already has been embarrassed.

Sadder yet is how both situations impact the current coach.

Heupel had to choose his words carefully after Saturday’s game. He praised the fans for the turnout and the atmosphere they helped create. But he also had to acknowledge the actions of a few of them, which resulted in a $250,000 fine from the SEC.

Heupel doesn’t have to address the Pruitt saga. Still, it hangs like a dark cloud over the work he’s doing in rebuilding a diminished program and re-energizing players like Jackson.

A coach could easily cuss out such a predicament.
* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at ddanfleser3@gmail.com.

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