Pruitt's growth evident in getting to 2020 kickoff
As Tennessee opens the 2020 campaign at South Carolina Saturday night, here's a suggestion for the theme that UTAD might use for the upcoming ten-game season: VOLS 2020: Your guess is as good as ours!
With a diluted pre-season camp due to a more spring-like schedule, contact tracing, normal injuries and abnormality of COVID-19 impacts, no one knows what the Vols will look like. Thankfully, we will get to find out.
With all of the uncertainty, Tennessee's one certainty has been the steadiness of Jeremy Pruitt.
When Pruitt arrived on Rocky Top in December of 2017, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first-time head coach. I had zero doubt that Jeremy Pruitt could coach. He had proven that in two stops at Alabama, a stop at Florida State and a stop at Georgia. But could he handle THIS job? A job with the size and scope of Tennessee?
His early days provided serious pause, especially in the PR area. One example in the spring 2018: Pruitt refused to talk in any specifics or even reference player names when speaking to the media. The head coach at the University of Tennessee simply can't do that for a variety of reasons. It might work for Bill Belichick when you've won six Super Bowls, but Volunteer fans in Union County and Union City want, need and deserve to know about their team.
Listen to Pruitt now and it's clear that he gets it. He realizes that you can say plenty without giving away your gameplan or overhyping your players. He has grown into the job.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer deserves credit as he has made suggestions to Pruitt on some non-football aspects of being an SEC head coach, picking his spots carefully. Fulmer initally eliminated as much "clutter" from non-football things as he could for his young head coach. Just like Doug Dickey did for Fulmer in 1993.
It gave Pruitt an opportunity to grow and to improve. Today, the 2020 Jeremy Pruitt is very different from the 2018 model. The last six months have been full of “clutter” and Pruitt has been fantastic in how he has handled it.
The ol’ high school coach, who taught elementary kids to tie their shoes, has said all the right things and hit all the right marks in a time where no one has been completely sure of what to say or do because no one has experienced anything like this.
For example, Pruitt never became a medical expert. He never got into the weeds to talk about the COVID-19 virus. He never publicly said they should or shouldn’t play football or that players should or shouldn’t return to campus. When asked medical questions, Pruitt repeatedly noted that Tennessee was just following CDC guidelines and never offered opinions on those guidelines. Pruitt did express frustration when it came to contact tracing, noting that not all states' guidelines were equal, but that’s as far as he took it.
Pruitt walked with his team in peaceful demonstrations against social injustice. He stood by his players but he never grandstanded. Instead, Pruitt visited with his players collectively and individually. He listened a lot. He never offered some kind of PR statement. He instead had real and frank conversations with his players.
Then, on the football side of things, he faced situations like the Cade Mays appeal. Pruitt made his case publicly and was the only one at Tennessee who did. But Pruitt's case wasn’t just for Mays, it was for all student-athletes transferring, noting anyone who transferred this year should be eligible. Then, he expressed confidence in SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey making the right decision. He noted that Sankey has made all of his decisions in the last six months in the best interest of the student-athletes, which was a shrewd play of some public pressure.
Pretty savvy for a guy who looked like he knew as much about savvy in 2017 as he did asparagus when he was at Hoover High School.
Saturday night, Jeremy Pruitt gets back to his playground. A playground of calling defenses, battling officials and making critical football decisions. It’s what Pruitt is paid to do. It’s what he loves to do and it’s what he will be judged by ultimately.
No one knows what his team will look like; maybe he’s not even sure. VOLS 2020: Your guess is as good as ours!
Tennessee fans are just hoping their team plays as well as their head coach has managed their football program through the most tumultuous six months that the college athletics world has ever seen.