In early December 2017, much of the college football world gathered in New York as it normally does for Hall of Fame inductions, awards ceremonies and long nights in the lobby bar of one of the city’s fanciest hotels.
That particular year, a chill had settled over the industry. The big topic was Tennessee, which was in the middle of perhaps the most chaotic and embarrassing coaching search in the modern history of the sport. But it wasn’t the kind of dysfunction administrators could point at and laugh.
Once word got out that Tennessee was on the verge of hiring Greg Schiano, the backlash that started on Twitter grew into such an angry mob that the school’s administration reversed course and pulled the offer. A few days later, athletic director John Currie was fired and former football coach Phillip Fulmer was installed into a job he wasn’t qualified for to restart the coaching search.
People who run Power Five athletics programs understand better than anyone that hiring a football coach is the most high-profile thing they will do, that the success or failure of their tenure will often be defined by that singular act. But to have the decision essentially vetoed by tweets? To be fired before anyone actually knew whether the choice was a good one? That was downright terrifying.
And also, as we now know, mind-numbingly stupid.
Tennessee’s experiment in letting the comment section run its athletic department came to a predictable and pathetic end Monday. Jeremy Pruitt, the coach who ultimately got the job, was fired with a 16-19 record in the midst of an investigation into NCAA violations. And Fulmer, the man who made the hire, has agreed to retire, which is a dignified way to say that he could not be allowed to choose another coach.
Undeniably, and on pretty much every conceivable level, Tennessee is further away from competing in the SEC than it was three years ago.
Maybe that will change if the school really nails its coach and AD hires. Because the reality is that Tennessee should be good at football. It has the facilities, the financial support and the tradition. Knoxville is an attractive, lively place to be. It’s only a few hours from multiple major recruiting hubs. Winning at Tennessee isn’t nearly as hard as the Vols have made it look for the last dozen years.
But defeating Tennessee’s biggest enemy in its pursuit of football greatness won’t be easy. That’s because the enemy is thyself.
There’s really nothing like it in all of college sports. No other program has Tennessee’s combination of media scrutiny and fan toxicity that fuels a crash-and-burn cycle of overwrought optimism and intense disappointment.
That’s not an exaggeration. Though there are plenty of places with unrealistic expectations and crazy fans, Tennessee’s different. Just on its own, Knoxville is the 61st biggest media market in the country with nearly 500,000 television homes according to the Nielsen rankings, and it has multiple sports talk radio stations that pump out Vols content all day long.
The Vols are also the biggest sports story in nearby Chattanooga, and they attract significant attention in Nashville and Memphis. They’re covered more intensely than most pro teams.
Tennessee has a ton of good fans across the South. They also have a lot of bad ones. The school’s intensely online fan base — known as #VolTwitter — is unmatched for its vulgarity and viciousness. There are people in college athletics who want nothing to do with Tennessee because they don’t want to subject themselves and their families to the kind of online abuse VolTwitter engages in routinely.
It’s one major reason why Currie, the former athletic director, went after Schiano in the first place. Though he never said it publicly, the end of the Butch Jones era had revealed that the Tennessee job wasn’t fit for someone with thin skin, who was going to hear all the criticism and start wavering when times got tough. That particular stage was too big for a first-time head coach.
Schiano may not have been flashy enough for Vol fans, but he had seen it all before while rebuilding Rutgers and through a tumultuous tenure in the NFL. We’ll never know if it would have worked, but the logic behind it was sound.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, it hasn’t been conditioned for logic, just emotion. And it’s only gotten more intense as the program has endured disappointment after disappointment.
That’s how you end up with an unqualified athletic director in Fulmer and a first-time head coach in Pruitt who embodied all of the above qualities that are poorly suited to the job.
That it ended like this was utterly predictable. The NCAA investigation is merely the fermented piece of fruit on top.
It’s hard to know where those violations will lead, but give Chancellor Donde Plowman credit for taking control of the situation and steering what could have been a tricky separation from Fulmer. Tennessee needed a clean slate, and now it has one.
It’s a long climb back to respectability for the Vols, but this is a good start — as long as it can keep the mob at bay.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: With Phillip Fulmer, Jeremy Pruitt out, Tennessee football can start with clean slate