Pruitt may match Majors’ rebuilding job at Tennessee

From a won-loss record standpoint, the current state of the Tennessee football program compares favorably to where it was 40 years ago.

After Johnny Majors’ first season ended in 1977, the Vols were 4-7 overall and 1-5 in SEC play. Butch Jones’ last season as the UT coach in 2017 produced 4-8 and 0-8.

Now it’s Jeremy Pruitt’s turn to guide Tennessee. Will he take the Vols on a steady incline as Majors did?

After Johnny came marching home, following his national championship season at Pittsburgh in 1976, he found his alma mater’s football program in far worse shape than he expected.

But give Majors credit. He improved the program more than any other UT coach has since the 1960s, or the modern era of Tennessee football, if you will.

It took him more time than I first thought it would, too.

Many Tennessee fans like me thought Majors would continue his winning ways right off the bat here in Knoxville. We found out different.

Johnny’s second season gained a little ground (5-5-1 overall and 3-3 in SEC play). The third year in 1979 saw the Big Orange hold steady at 3-3 in conference play but climb to 7-5 overall and earn a trip to the Bluebonnet Bowl – its first bowl berth in five years.

In 1982, the World’s Fair opened in Knoxville, but the biggest sports news of the year was Majors’ squad putting an end to an 11-game losing streak to Bear Bryant and Alabama.

I guess you could say Majors’ rebuilding job was finally completed when he directed the Volunteers to that 35-7 romp past Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes in the 1986 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Tennessee was the SEC champion that 1985 season, posting a 9-1-2 overall record and going 5-1 in league play.

Majors’ Vols went on to capture two more SEC titles in 1989 and 1990. They were 9-3 and 5-2 in Majors’ last full season as coach.

Phillip Fulmer benefitted from taking over a program that was as good as any in the country. He would tell you that too. As offensive line coach and then offensive coordinator, he helped build it.

Fulmer sustained Tennessee’s success and took it a notch higher with the 13-0 national championship season of 1998.

Thirty years ago, Tennessee was where it is now.

Can Pruitt rebuild the program like Majors did after it steadily tumbled downhill under Bill Battle?

Only time will tell.

But Tennessee fans have a couple of things going for them on this topic. Considering his previous coaching stops – Alabama, Georgia and Florida State – Pruitt knows what good players and teams are supposed to look like. And Fulmer, now the athletic director who also knows what it takes to win big, was smart enough to recognize that and hire him.