“We did this to ourselves.”
For over a week, those five words have been ringing in my ear as I followed – at a distance – the calamity which is the UT athletics department. When the chaos started last Monday with the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and ‘resignation’ of AD Phillip Fulmer, I started talking to Chris Sullens – a man with a similar passion for the Big Orange.
As the details emerged from the internal investigation, which led to Pruitt’s dismissal for cause, it became evident Tennessee was embarking in some self-sabotage. All for the price of about $12 million. Level 1 infractions were uncovered. Level 2 infractions as well. If you believe the report by Dan Patrick, Vol recruits were getting the best Happy Meals of all – sacks of McDonald’s filled with cash.
It took a lot to process everything that was being said, but Sullens summed it up succinctly – “we did this to ourselves.” He’s right – UT willingly undertook an internal investigation that led to the ousting of Pruitt to save money, all while crippling the program’s current status and future at the same time.
Look, NCAA rules were probably broken. I’m not saying I know this for a fact, but I’m basing it on the general assumption that EVERY high level college football program recruits in a grey area. Whether it is $100 handshakes, renting out apartments like USC did for Reggie Bush or – potentially in this case – making every recruit embrace the ‘I’m Lovin’ It,” slogan from Mickey D’s, recruiting is a dirty business.
Just five years ago, Bleacher Report published a story about recruiting that surveyed FBS coaches. They called the task of recruiting as a head coach “Dysfunctional Hell,” and admitted that programs probably can’t get back on track without cheating.
So when everybody is doing it, there is two sure-fire ways to get busted: Do it in such an obvious manner that the NCAA can’t look the other way or just turn yourself in. Tennessee chose the self-destruct button it seems.
In the fallout, Tennessee has fired nine coaches/personnel, lost several recruits who were planning to sign in February (not to count those who already signed in December that want out now), and an abundance of players who are jumping in the transfer portal and looking for greener pastures.
Many – if not all – of the current players leaving seem to be linked to one assistant coach who was fired amid the improper benefits investigation the university conducted. A popular Steve Miller Band song comes to mind when thinking of their departures.
Tennessee did its best to take a proactive approach, hiring Danny White from UCF to serve as the new athletic director. Widely respected for his job bringing the Golden Knights into the national conversation (aided perhaps by his parade anointing UCF the national champs in 2017), White seemed to be a home run hire for the Vols.
The expectation was he would follow with a grand slam when it came to replacing Pruitt.
As with any UT coaching search – and there have been far too many in the last 12 years – big names were thrown out. Some, like me, wanted to see Lane Kiffin brought back. Others clamored for James Franklin, former Vandy coach and current Penn State leader. If a big fish couldn’t be reeled in, then some figured the logical next step would be Jamey Chadwell, an up-and-comer who just led Coastal Carolina to a top 15 finish and has major ties to East Tennessee.
The only thing UT fans seemed to agree on was that they didn’t want Sonny Dykes.
White didn’t go with Dykes, averting what would have likely been another revolt by the Vol fanbase similar to the one that happened when former AD John Currie tried to hire Greg Schiano back in 2017 (Currie was fired not long after and the Fulmer/Pruitt combo emerged days later). Instead, White took his time and worked hard to zero in on the perfect candidate. He (reportedly) had talks with Franklin, reached out to former Titan coach Jeff Fisher (again, reportedly) and likely flirted with several other candidates in the last week.
After all that time, he came up with a great idea – just hire the same guy he did at UCF.
Josh Heupel was named the new head coach at Tennessee this morning. If you’ve been following college football as long as I have, then you probably remember Heupel for leading Oklahoma to the national championship 20 years ago. Since then, he’s become an offensive guru on the sidelines, guiding prolific offenses at Utah State and Missouri as an OC before taking the big job at UCF three years ago.
Heupel has won 28 games in the last three seasons. Without looking at it, it feels like that may be the same amount as UT has won in the last decade (It’s really not, UT won 16 games under Pruitt the last three years though). He may be good, he may not be – who really knows at this point?
In the grand scheme of things, bringing in Heupel merits from me a shoulder shrug. I don’t hate the hire – he’s better than Dykes or Fisher for sure. Some part of me wonders why UT wouldn’t look at another national championship winning QB for the job, perhaps the one that is already on staff and played for the Vols. Maybe Tee Martin wasn’t ready for the big chair though.
Love it or hate it now, Vol fans will eventually rally behind Heupel and start expecting Top 10 finishes and SEC championships soon. The platitudes will follow – I mean, aren’t we all ready to jump in our Big Orange Dooleys, watch Heupel start stacking bricks and win big, Aight?
And if he does actually win, Vol Nation will rejoice. If he loses, we’ll do this all over again in 3-4 years.
It’s the best – or worst – thing about being a Tennessee fan. Win big or lose big, the support is unwavering. The stress is too.
Remember, we do this to ourselves.