By Mark Nagi
Boy oh boy was November 23 a lousy day for Tennessee athletics.
First came the news that men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes was one of multiple members of the program that had tested positive for COVID-19. Tennessee immediately postponed all team activities. That news broke after a statement that was released by the UT men’s basketball twitter account.
“The basketball team is following SEC, local and university public health guidelines to prioritize the health and safety of all student-athletes and staff as well the campus and local community.”
It wasn’t the first time they’ve had to stop team activities due to the pandemic. Back in June two players tested positive for the virus.
Later in the day, Tennessee canceled its first two games, against Charlotte and VCU, due to COVID-19 contact tracing.
The football program, which already had the Texas A&M game postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in College Station, once again saw its schedule affected. The Vols were supposed to play Vanderbilt on November 28, but that game was postponed so that the SEC could reschedule the previously postponed Vanderbilt/Missouri game. The conference is trying to get all 14 teams to play their allotment of 10 games, and this move might make that happen.
That leaves the Vols with two games (December 5 against Florida and December 12 against Texas A&M) and what seems to be the game at Vanderbilt on December 19.
Athletics director Phillip Fulmer tested positive for COVID-19 on November 20. UT Chancellor Donde Plowman is in quarantine after she and Fulmer attended a meeting together earlier this month.
Nothing is typical this year, and nothing comes easy. Everyone is trying to find a way to get through the season.
Let’s touch on the basketball team first. On paper the Vols are going to be good this year. Really good. They start the season ranked 12th in the nation, and have the potential to make it to the Final Four for the first time in program history. But they are going to have to fight their way through factors that no one foresaw a year ago.
And now, they have a 66-year-old coach that is dealing directly with COVID-19. It’s not a recipe for success.
The good news is that every other program is going to have to deal with this in some way, shape or form as well.
As for football, scheduling issues due to COVID-19 seem to be the least of their worries. They enter the Florida game losers of five straight games for the first time since 1998. They lost each of those games by double digits. Tennessee has played football since 1891 and has never lost five straight games by double digits.
This coaching staff appears to be incapable of finding and developing a quarterback. They can’t make adjustments in the second half. It isn’t a program that appears to be moving in the right direction.
But with the new schedule (if in fact these three games are actually played), it sets the Vanderbilt game up as a make or break affair for Jeremy Pruitt as head coach.
If Tennessee loses to the Gators and Aggies (and they will be massive underdogs), they enter the Vandy game with a 2-7 record.
Should Pruitt be fired, the buyout would be massive. Pruitt would be owed over $13 million. Factoring in his assistant coaches salaries and Tennessee would be on the hook for over $19 million. If UT were to hire a current college coach, they’d likely have to worry about a buyout for him too.
That is absurd money, even for a place like Tennessee, which has made living the buyout a reality for coaches and administrators. During a pandemic I’m not sure even Tennessee would do that.
But if Vanderbilt were to beat Tennessee, dropping the Vols to 2-8? That would mean UT went from an eight game winning streak to an eight game losing streak. And if that happens, then all bets are off.