Before Jeremy Pruitt could win big on the field, he had to win big off of it.
As great as Tennessee’s tradition is, there is no orange and white magic dust to sprinkle on a problem to make it right again. It always takes hard work, but there was more than usual to do in the aftermath of the Butch Jones era and the caustic coaching search that followed.
Although last season ended with a losing record, it seemed like Pruitt had made progress. Throughout the offseason the message was that he had spent most of his first season cleaning up messes rather than coaching. That hit home in July when he started talking about how he finally had time to develop individual relationships with his players.
He had spent so much time in the weeds he couldn’t remember what life was like walking on freshly cut green grass.
So when this season started there was reason for optimism. Everything he had gained, however, disappeared in the loss to Georgia State. Everyone understood there would be hiccups, but losing to the team that finished last in the Sun Belt Conference the year before was unacceptable.
It’s why the Vols are taking so much pride in the turnaround they’re experiencing the last two months. On Saturday, they rolled to a 28-10 win over Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium to put the finishing touches on a 7-5 regular season with their fifth consecutive victory. On Dec. 8 they’ll find out which bowl game they’ll play in for the first time since the 2016 season.
It’s the second time in 12 years Tennessee has won at least five games in a row. Think about that in reference to where this program was when Pruitt took over.
“Unless you were here the first day I walked in the building I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come,” Pruitt said during Saturday’s postgame press conference. “Coach (Phil) Fulmer was here.”
Then Pruitt paused. Standing in the back of the room like he always does, Fulmer smirked.
“It’s a long ways. I can assure you that,” Pruitt continued. “Our guys, I’m excited for them the way they feel, the confidence that they have. We’re playing with so much more confidence, believing in ourselves, believing in each other.”
The wins on the field are great, but winning rarely is possible if the players don’t buy what the coaching staff is selling. Ever since the Vols started their turnaround, in which their only loss in seven games came at then-No. 1 Alabama, the players have been speaking highly about Pruitt’s vision.
Even a handful of freshmen have discussed that when answering questions about why they came to Tennessee. Last year’s losing season never swayed running back Eric Gray, who set the tone for his career with a record performance on Saturday, or linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who has been a rock at middle linebacker from day one.
Pruitt’s vision is what brought the team together following the blowout loss at Florida. Pruitt called a team meeting and implored the seniors to lead an improved attitude so the Vols could get up off the floor and start running in the right direction.
Somewhere along the way, the Vols lost that. Pruitt’s response inspired them.
“A lot of us had to reevaluate ourselves and actually see what we really wanted — if we were just going to go out there and just be another body on the field or if we were going to go out there and play for each other, play for your team, come together as one.” senior wide receiver Marquez Callaway said Saturday. “After that meeting we sat down and pushed each other. The following practice you could tell we went out there and had a changed mindset and not just for the coaches but for each other.”
The way the Vols are playing now is what Pruitt saw during preseason practice in August. Then the bright lights turned on and it all went away.
Led by error-prone and otherwise ineffective quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, the Vols’ offense committed too many turnovers. The defense turned in laughable performance after laughable performance.
There were key absences, too. Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli missed two games with an injury. Cornerback Bryce Thompson was suspended. Offensive lineman Trey Smith couldn’t find his rhythm due to his health condition which limited his practice time.
Slowly but surely, the Vols got things right. The on-field issues were fixable, and the personnel issues were temporary.
None of that would have mattered, however, if the coaching staff had not maintained their high expectations of the players and if the players had not come together after being so far apart.
It’s a message Bituli said he hopes leaves a lasting impression on the young Tennessee players who will be tasked with returning the program to a championship-level after he leaves.
“I want people to look at this season and reflect on life in general,” Bituli said. “Things aren’t going to go your way, but what you can’t do is sit down and get beat up by it. You have to stand up, work for what you want and if you do that you can be successful.”