By Alex Norman
After the Orange & White Game was over, representatives of Tennessee’s football program met with the media. And by representatives, I mean new head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
No players, no assistant coaches… just Pruitt. This creates its own set of problems…. But more on that in a second.
Pruitt spoke with reporters and had a message for Tennessee fans. Over 65,000 were officially listed as showing up at Neyland Stadium on April 21 (probably closer to 50,000 in reality), but it doesn’t sound like that was an acceptable number.
“Well, to me, it’s kind of like our football team for the fans. The ones that were here, I’m proud they were here. They’re fired up and ready to get going. Then there were some people that weren’t here that had legitimate reasons they couldn’t be here, all right. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that, why wasn’t they here? It’s kind of like our football team.”
Pruitt was making a point about how unhappy he was with the performance of his players. Before and during the game he made it a point to have some very animated conversations with more than a few players, so his post-game comments aren’t much of a surprise. He was complimentary of the atmosphere at the Vol Walk.
But overall, this is not a good look for the first-year head coach.
Pruitt wasn’t here for the past ten years, in which the Vols went 62-63. There were no conference championships, much less a division title. From Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley to Butch Jones, there were massive underachievement, and most importantly a serious disconnect between the athletic department and the fans.
And you know what? The fans kept coming. And not just in football. Tennessee consistently ranks in the top ten in attendance in football, men’s and women’s basketball, and softball.
The last people that Pruitt needs to be slamming are Tennessee fans.
Now, you can make the point that all Pruitt was doing was trying to get fans to buy-in yet again. But that’s not the smartest way to get about such things.
Pruitt has been on the job full-time for less than four months, and has been working to get the football program back on stable ground. He’s hired a staff, been recruiting, and just finished spring practice. But he isn’t exactly Bruce Pearl (who has his own faults, obviously) in terms of connecting with Tennessee fans. So far, Pruitt hasn’t done very much in terms of public speaking.
The weekend of the Orange & White Game was also changed a great deal with the elimination of the autograph session for fans. This was a major blunder. Fans wait for that opportunity all year long. It’s a chance for them to make a one-one-one connection with Tennessee players and coaches. It’s something the average fan can’t do otherwise.
Pruitt is all about football. The other stuff just doesn’t seem to matter to him very much. He’s learned from Nick Saban in separate stints working for the Alabama coach, and that’s great for some things. It’s not great for the PR aspect of being a football coach.
It doesn’t matter for Saban. He wins 11 games a year (minimum) and wins national championships at Alabama on average nearly every two years. He could demand that Alabama play all their home games without fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium and the fans would ask if a two-mile radius was far enough.
But Pruitt appears to be bringing that same arms-length philosophy to Tennessee. He severely limited player interviews this spring. He didn’t allow any of his assistants to be interviewed. This is taken directly from the Nick Saban playbook.
Guys like Derek Dooley and Jim McElwain have tried to emulate Saban in this regard, with disastrous results. Pruitt would be wise to learn from their mistakes.
There are more reasons than ever to stay at home. Ticket prices. Traffic. HDTV. Beer a walk to the fridge away.
Pruitt doesn’t have to make the football program at Tennessee more accessible to fans. The fans don’t have to buy-in either…