HOOVER, Ala. — There's no easy way to say this and no better spot to explain it than the unhinged carnival of wild preseason expectations that is SEC media days.
Tennessee, once a proud SEC heavyweight, will never be elite again.
Two decades removed from the golden age of Vols football, second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt strolled to the podium earlier this week and began extolling the academic virtues of his team.
That's right, the program of General Robert Neyland's maxims and Peyton Manning and Reggie White and all those memorable fall Saturdays in the Smoky Mountains is bowing its back with academics.
“We had 53 guys in the spring semester who had a 3.0 [GPA] or better,” Pruitt declared.
Meanwhile, back in reality:
- Tennessee has seven losing seasons in its past 11.
- Five times in the past eight seasons, the Vols have won two or fewer SEC games and are 28-60 in league games since 2008.
- Tennessee hasn't had a player selected in three of the past five NFL drafts.
- Four full-time and two interim coaches in the past 10 years have combined for a 62-63 record.
And if we're really talking academics, look no further than longtime SEC tomato can Vanderbilt, a state rival and academic bastion Tennessee has ignored for decades. The big, bad Commodores have won three straight over the Vols for the first time since the 1920s.
“We don't feel the weight of bringing the program back,” said Tennessee linebacker Darrell Taylor.
Why would they? Taylor, a fifth-year senior, was born a year before Tennessee's last SEC championship—and in the middle of the four-season run under Phil Fulmer (1995-98) that produced a 45-5 record (including a national title and two SEC championships) and elevated unrealistic expectations a passionate fanbase is still chasing.
It's no wonder the dream scenario in every coaching search since Fulmer was fired in 2008 begins with former Vols graduate assistant Jon Gruden and ends with settling for bizarre choices that have contributed to the inevitable decline to mediocrity.
The Tennessee job has become a stepping stone or a tombstone.
The lunacy hit an all-time high at the end of the 2017 season and led to a convergence of events that concluded with the Vols overpaying a career assistant coach (Pruitt) $4 million a year to mop up the mess.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse than Lane Kiffin leaving after one season (and with the NCAA closing in on the program for secondary violations); or Derek Dooley comparing his team to German troops at Normandy; or Butch Jones and his turnover trash can; along comes two weeks of coaching search infamy for the once-proud program.
Tennessee had Dan Mullen on the hook—he spoke at length to Manning about the job and would've crawled to Knoxville for it—and waited too long to make the hire. That allowed Florida to swoop in and hire Mullen after Chip Kelly decided he wanted the UCLA job.
But that was but a mere blip into the inner workings of dysfunction. During those two weeks, an offer to one coach (Greg Schiano) had local and state politicians tweeting their displeasure, and there were embarrassing public no thank-you's from NC State coach Dave Doeren and Purdue's Jeff Brohm.
At one point, Tennessee left Washington State coach Mike Leach standing at the altar after he was offered the job, a deal that was quickly pulled because the chancellor at Tennessee was in the process of firing athletic director John Currie (who made the offer) and replacing him with Fulmer, who may or may not have led a coup to push out Currie.
By the time it was all untangled, those pie-in-the-sky Grumors had been whittled down to three candidates: Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Pruitt, the defensive coordinator at Alabama.
A year later, after an unsightly first season that included six losses by at least 25 points, Pruitt walked into this annual smorgasbord of football and thumped his chest about grade-point averages.
He may as well have strolled to the podium with that turnover trash can hoisted over his head.
Look, this isn't going to get better because Nick Saban and Alabama aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Because Ed Orgeron is recruiting as well as anyone in the league at LSU, and Kirby Smart is locking down Georgia and Florida has Mullen.
Those same areas Fulmer cultivated two decades ago—when Alabama, LSU and Georgia were underachieving with ill-fitted coaching staffs—are long out of reach now and have been so for more than a decade. The days of Tennessee rolling through the SEC are long gone.
“The game has changed, and Tennessee doesn't quite have the advantages it did with facilities and recruiting,” said former Florida coach Steve Spurrier. “It's a lot like Nebraska right now. Can they get it back? Shoot, there's a lot more to it now.”
The Vols are 29th in the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings for the 2020 class and sit behind 10 other SEC teams. That's not getting you to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007; that's placing you at the end of a growing list of coaches who couldn't figure it out.
That's not recapturing the golden age; that's reinforcing a reality as clear as Gen. Neyland's maxims.
Tennessee will never be elite again.