There’s no denying that we love symmetry in sports.
Looking at the past to predict what a program will do in the future isn’t exactly a scientific way of forecasting success, but it can give us a good idea of what’s possible in sports.
The most recent example of this with the Tennessee Vols is the comparison of Jeremy Pruitt with Nick Saban and Ed Orgeron.
Pruitt losing to Georgia State last season is similar to Saban losing to Louisiana-Monroe in 2007 and Orgeron losing to Troy in 2017.
That’s an encouraging comparison for Tennessee fans, because it shows that a program can go through some early adversity and still reach an elite level (two years after losing to non power-five programs, Saban and Orgeron each led their respective teams to a national championship).
Another encouraging comparison for Vols fans is early 2000’s LSU.
And here’s why.
When LSU hired Nick Saban in late 1999, he wasn’t the Nick Saban he is today. Saban was a moderately successful coach who went 34-24-1 in five seasons as Michigan State’s head coach.
And the Tigers’ path to Saban was a lot like the Vols’ path to Pruitt.
In 1999, the Tigers fired head coach Gerry DiNardo, who had a five year stretch at LSU that was similar to Butch Jones’ five year stretch at Tennessee.
DiNardo had three winning seasons, the high point being a 10 win season in 1996, before going 6-15 in his final two seasons in Baton Rouge (including going 2-8 before getting fired in 1999).
When LSU set out to hire a new head coach, there weren’t a lot of options. The coaching search wasn’t necessarily messy, but there was no home run hire that LSU zeroed in on.
The Tigers had gone through six coaches over 20 years since the retirement of Charles McClendon in 1979 (similar to Tennessee going through three head coaches, before Pruitt, since the retirement of Phillip Fulmer in 2008). They couldn’t afford to miss again.
Saban wasn’t even on the radar in Baton Rouge. Sports talk radio (this was pre sports blogs) wasn’t mentioning him as an option.
In 2004 The Houma Courier said of the search “Back in Baton Rouge, where even the most off-base rumors find the airwaves, Saban’s name never came up.”
LSU athletic director Joe Dean told The Houma Courier that Saban “basically got the job by default, we didn’t have a leading candidate”.
That sounds incredibly similar to the way Pruitt landed the head coaching gig at Tennessee in late 2017. After a crazy search that didn’t produce any results, Pruitt got the job almost by default. He was the best candidate when there wasn’t a clear leading candidate.
Now, take a look at his excerpt from The Houma Courier about Saban and tell me it doesn’t sound like the same thing could be said about Pruitt in the coming years.
Almost immediately, the second-guessing began. What about his so-so record at Michigan State? What about his repeated flirtations with NFL jobs? Is he really a players’ coach? Why doesn’t he smile?
“People here had been beat up so much for 20 years,” said Hanagriff, who fielded many of the complaints on his talk show. “I guess you could say they were cautious about him. I thought it was a good hire, and I said so at the time. You had a guy from a major program in a big conference who’d had some success. What more could you want?”
Not even the most loyal fan, however, could have predicted the success LSU has achieved under Saban.
Sometimes a program has to hit rock bottom before they can truly rise from the ashes.
LSU hit rock bottom in 1999. And a coaching search that was heavily questioned ended up producing possibly the greatest college football head coach of all time.
In 1999, the Tigers finished 3-8. Four years later, they were hoisting the BCS championship trophy.
There’s no way to know if the same is in store for Pruitt and the Vols. But it should certainly give Vol fans some hope that the same is possible in Knoxville.
After everything Tennessee fans have been through the last 12 years, they certainly deserve it.
Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports/Getty