KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — During the noontime news on Thursday, a local sports anchor sensed the potential for alarm out in the viewing audience and aimed to supply some reassurance. Matter-of-factly, he spoke of the Tennessee fans and of Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s athletic director and former championship football coach, and he said, “They know Coach Fulmer hates Alabama as much as any Tennessee fan, so if he can see past that . .. ”
Tennessee had hired an Alabama guy, a ratification of Alabama supremacy, right here in the SEC, the famous acronym that stands for Southeastern Contempt.
So had ended the nation’s most turbulent coaching hire, one that seemed to redefine the meaning of time itself. By the time Tennessee introduced Alabama defensive coordinator and former Alabama player Jeremy Pruitt in the early evening, some observers had taken to calling the hiring process a “saga.”
Since season’s end, it had taken 12 days.
Since the firing of former coach Butch Jones, it had taken 23.
That’s not very long, except in an era of instant information, in which it’s a saga.
Of course, many will miss the riveting Tennessee coaching search of 2017, which did include also the matter of the initial athletic director taken off the job, the fan rebellion that quashed the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and enough twists and candidates that you could forget entire stuff. For example, on Thursday, on a sidewalk at the corner of Volunteer and Pat Head Summitt, somebody, perhaps weeks ago, had chalked in the proper nouns “Jon Gruden.”
That might have reminded that, back when some Tennessee fans had their recurring fever dream about luring Gruden out of the TV booth and back to coaching for the first time in going-on-10 years, and for the first time in college in going-on-20, there came a story so profoundly SEC. The famed local eatery, Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River, had tweeted that Gruden had turned up in the restaurant with Peyton Manning. It then touchingly retracted the tweet once it seemed the alleged Gruden wasn’t actually Gruden, with the real Gruden working in Seattle which, in the tweeter’s defense, might be 2,567 miles away by car, but is only 2,112 by air.
On Thursday, Calhoun’s tweeted a welcome to Pruitt, the hashtags boasting a particular gem: #CornPudding.
Just behind the “Gruden” on the sidewalk, Kate Luffman had arrived at 2 p.m., at The Rock, the famous campus rock on which anyone may paint, and which gained fresh fame for painted protests about Schiano and former athletic director John Currie. Now Luffman, a sophomore from Pennsylvania, had brought enough canisters to spray-paint three coats on a moose. “I came out here and it was a mess,” she said of the rock, “because there were just words all over the place.”
“Just random words,” she said.
First, she took about 90 minutes to cover the random words with a compelling gray. Then she began crafting, in a stylish orange-and-white: “Welcome to Rocky Top Coach Pruitt.” She echoed what people kept saying across town all day: “Especially compared to previous prospects that we were looking at, I think everybody is much happier now.” She had heard zero grumbling about the Alabama aspect, and with Tennessee having gone 62-63 in the past 10 seasons, outscored 396-126 by Alabama in the past 11 games, all losses, you know what?
Hire the Alabama guy.
The clouds that brooded over Knoxville on Thursday looked like 4-8 clouds, and some had dark underbellies, making them clearly 0-8-in-the-Southeastern Conference clouds. An exam-time hush prevailed over campus. You could hear students here and there in the semi-crowded chain restaurants along Cumberland Avenue, yammering about their levels of exam preparedness.
By 5:30 p.m., the TV vans and cars massed outside Neyland Stadium: Local8News, News Channel 11, WBIR-TV 10 News 247, 5 News, another WBIR, another WBIR, WRCB Coverage You Can Count On, 5 Your News & Information Leader, WATE 6 and 4 News Working For You. Inside, a lectern and folding chairs waited in the locker room, plush site of serial autumn glumness.
Chancellor Beverly Davenport told of being charmed that Pruitt used to teach kindergarten through third-grade, yet she knew the populous room in which she stood, so she veered wisely to say: “But make no bones about it: He told me he wanted to win championships, and I told him: Make no bones about it, Tennessee expects you to.” She advised Pruitt and his family that the appropriate shade of orange is, of course, Pantone 151, another of college football’s reminders that this might be the nuttiest country on Earth.
Pruitt is the son of a high school football coach and the grandson of a Baptist minister, much like Bill Battle, the previous Alabama player to coach Tennessee (1970-76, a 59-22-2 record), the son of an athletic director and the grandson of a Methodist minister. Pruitt stood, fresh from the witness-protection program of Nick Saban’s Alabama staff, and it grew obvious he’s one of those coaches whose arteries seem to course with Red Bull.
“I’m sure y’all heard the phone go off. That happened to be my father’s,” he said of the elder high school coach. He retold the story of when, as a fourth-grader, he questioned his father’s play-calling and got whipped with the belt. To bridge sentences and thoughts, Jeremy Pruitt aims to say, “All right,” but he’s in such a hurry there’s no time for both syllables, so the sound is, chronically, “Aaa-ight.” When he told how he grew up “in a small town in North Alabama” (Rainsville, pop. 5,000), he sounded as if the Tennessee River should have just diverted and roped him in to help out here.
Craving “a big, fast, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play,” he said also, “We’re gonna coach ’em how to go to class, how to introduce theirself to the professors in their class because I think that’s important. We’re gonna coach ’em where to sit in the classroom, how to take notes.” And: “I’m gonna tell you this,” Pruitt said. “You didn’t draft me. I chose to be here.”
Pruitt, who will recruit for Tennessee and then go coach Alabama in the College Football Playoff and then return to Tennessee, also said those words said rarely around Knoxville: “Coach Saban has been wonderful to me.” Outside, on the video board atop the stadium, there was a humongous photo of Pruitt in Tennessee gear, Saban’s latest assistant to get snared by a neighbor, two years after Georgia got Kirby Smart.
“He changes lives,” Fulmer, 67, said, calling Pruitt’s energy “infectious.” He told of Pruitt’s prowess with defense and said, “It’s hard to be cute and win in this conference. And as you can tell, ‘Coach’ is not a ‘cute’ guy.” Fulmer even laughed a little laugh at a question about how cringe-worthy it might have been to choose from Alabama. “My charge was to find the best coach,” he said, after 23 days of manufactured breathlessness, but 13 years after something else. In 2004, in an only-in-the-SEC moment, Fulmer appeared at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., only by speakerphone, refraining from entering Alabama then apparently to avoid receiving subpoenas in a defamation case after, the Associated Press reported, he had been “a confidential witness in an NCAA investigation that landed Alabama on probation.”
“Say this,” Fulmer said Thursday. “I have got a lot of respect for Alabama and what they’ve accomplished, especially recently. Have to.” Yes, have to, and so this vivid coaching search had ended, and if it works, the “saga” might even forge upon Fulmer’s 67-year-old heart a wee soft spot for Alabama.