The Tennessee Vols football program is in a very strange place right now.
It’s still quite early in the Jeremy Pruitt era at Tennessee, but things aren’t exactly going to plan at the moment.
Instead of sitting at 3-1, the Vols are 1-3 with mind-numbing losses to Georgia State and BYU on their resumé. It’s not a surprise that there’s already a lot of talk about whether or not Pruitt will ever find success at Tennessee (there’s even some discussion about whether or not he’ll survive until 2020).
But despite Pruitt’s early struggles, I still think there’s plenty of reason for hope.
(I detailed many of those reasons here.)
Of course, me simply telling fans to have some hope might not be good enough for the skeptical crowd. And I get it. After being sold hope for a decade, and not seeing any payoff, it’s tough to go down that road again.
But sports fans tend to love symmetry. And that’s why I looked at some other situations in recent years that could give Vol fans some hope.
There are two specific coaches I found that faced a lot of adversity before finding some consistent success. And the names I found are two coaches who Vol nation collectively adores.
Mike Leach and David Cutcliffe.
The coach who nearly came to Tennessee in 2017 and the coach who was Phillip Fulmer’s right hand man during UT’s glory days.
Let’s start with Cutcliffe, who nearly returned to Tennessee in 2010 as the program’s head coach.
Cutcliffe left Tennessee in 2007 (after his second stint as the Vols’ offensive coordinator) to take the head coaching job at Duke — one of the least desirable jobs in the nation (at the time).
Duke won four games in the four years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival. It was the worst four year stretch in Duke football history (much like when Pruitt took over at Tennessee, which was coming of its worst season in program history).
The Blue Devils immediately showed improvement under Cutcliffe, winning four games in 2008. They showed even more improvement in 2009, winning five games. But the program seemingly took a step back in 2010 and 2011, winning three games each season. In year four, Duke lost to Richmond, a FCS program.
So, just like Pruitt, Cutcliffe led a program to some immediate improvement (like Pruitt did in 2018), before suffering through a couple of “down years” while instilling a new culture.
In 2012, Duke reached six wins and a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 season. In 2013, the Blue Devils won 10 games. That was previously unthinkable at Duke.
It took some time to find success, mostly because the culture in Durham was abhorrent when Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, but the athletic director stuck by a coach who had a great reputation. And it paid off.
As for Leach, he did similar things at Washington State.
The Cougars won six games in the two years before Leach arrived. In 2012, Leach’s first season, Washington State won only three games. In 2013, the Cougars won six games and played in their first bowl game in 10 years.
In 2014, things didn’t go as well for Leach. The team won only three games.
But Washington State stuck with Leach and the program won nine games in 2015. In 2018, Leach led the Cougars to their first 11 win season ever.
I’m sure no one saw 11 wins coming from Washington State after winning only three games in 2014. And I’m sure no one saw 10 wins coming from Duke after winning only three games in 2011.
It took both of those coaches several years to recruit their players and to instill their culture before solidifying each program.
And guess what?
Unlike Pruitt, they each had prior head coaching experience. Leach won 11 games at Texas Tech in 2008. Cutcliffe won 10 games at Ole Miss in 2003.
Sometimes, programs have to go through tough times with good coaches before finding success. It’s just how it goes.
Right now, Tennessee is essentially the Washington State and Duke of the SEC. It’s not a fun thought for fans, but it’s reality.
And when a program gets to that point, it’s going to take a while to dig its way out.
Pruitt may eventually fail at Tennessee. No one knows how the future will play out.
But it’s certainly way too early to show him the door. The next coach won’t be set up for success, either. And Tennessee will be right back in the same situation (or maybe worse).
There’s a precedent for what the Vols are going through. Fans have to let the process play out.
It’s the only choice that makes sense right now.
Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports