Vol fans are hoping to see significant improvement from Tennessee’s football team in Jeremy Pruitt’s second year as head coach. In his first year, the Vols went 5-7 and suffered six losses by double digits. The 2019 schedule looks a little easier, and the talent level has been boosted thanks to recruiting and the additions of Aubrey Solomon and Deangelo Gibbs as transfers.
But just how much of a step forward can Pruitt and Tennessee take in Year Two?
Most fans believe the Vols should at least make a bowl game in 2019, which means a minimum expectation of a 6-6 record. Getting to 7-5 is certainly not outside the realm of possibility, and an 8-4 mark would be an overachievement and worthy of praise.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a head coach in Tennessee’s history facing a tougher rebuild than what Pruitt is experiencing right now. Not only is Tennessee itself as a program arguably at the lowest point it’s ever been in modern football history, but the SEC is arguably the toughest and deepest it’s ever been. Not only that, but both Alabama and Georgia are recruiting powerhouses, and Florida, LSU, and Texas A&M are recruiting as well as they ever have.
Getting to a bowl game would certainly be an improvement for the Vols this season, but what does UT’s own history tell us about how head coaches have done in their second year at the helm?
Over the last 100 years, Tennessee has had 11 head coaches prior to Pruitt who have coached at least two seasons at UT. Starting with M.B. Banks in 1922 all the way to Pruitt’s predecessor in Butch Jones in 2013, the Vols have seen nearly a dozen coaches navigate Tennessee from their first season to their second.
So, how do UT’s coaches do in their second seasons on average?
Only four of the 11 previous head coaches over the last century have shown regression from their first year to their second. Harvey Robinson went 6-4-1 in his first year as head coach in 1953 and then led the Vols to just a 4-6 mark in 1954. Bill Battle went 11-1 in his first season in 1970 then fell to 10-2 in his second in 1971. Phillip Fulmer’s first full season in 1993 saw UT go 10-2 (after Alabama was forced to vacate their tie with Tennessee that season), but the Vols went 8-4 in his second year in 1994. Derek Dooley rounds out the list, as his first Vol squad in 2010 went 6-7 but his second went 5-7 in 2011.
Robert Neyland is the only outlier among the previous head coaches. Neyland served two separate stints as head coach, but I only looked at his first one since he wasn’t technically a “new” head coach his second time around. He didn’t improve any in the win column from his first to his second season, and he’s the only UT coach over the last century to do so. He did, however, lose one less game in his second season, going from 8-1 in 1926 to 8-0-1 in 1927.
The other six coaches over the last 100 years all improved in their second seasons by at least one win.
Both John Barnhill and Johnny Majors improved by one win in their second seasons at the helm of the Vols, and M.B. Banks and Butch Jones each improved UT’s win total by two in their second year.
The biggest leaps in improvement from Year One to Year Two in Tennessee history came from Bowden Wyatt and Doug Dickey.
In Wyatt’s first year as head coach in 1955, Tennessee went 6-3-1. In his second, he led the Vols to a 10-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in college football. Similarly, Dickey’s first Vol squad went 4-5-1 in 1964, but his second UT team went 8-1-2 and finished No. 7 in the polls.
Most of Tennessee’s coaches didn’t have to take over a floundering program like Pruitt did, however.
Only four of the previous 11 coaches had losing seasons in their first year as head coach (Dickey, Majors, Dooley, Jones), and only three head coaches (Wyatt, Dickey, Jones) took over a team in their first year that went .500 or worse in the previous season.
Of those coaches, only Dooley didn’t see at least a one-win improvement in their second season as head coach from their first.
On average, Tennessee’s head coaches have shown almost three-fourths of a win difference from their first to their second seasons as head coach. Rounded up, that means most of UT’s head coaches over the last century have won at least one more game in their second season compared to their first. Four of the previous 11 head coaches have won at least two more games in their second seasons compared to their first.
The only head coach that is really comparable to Pruitt over the last 100 years in terms of facing a major rebuild is Johnny Majors. When Majors took over in 1977, Tennessee was in very bad shape coming off the mismanagement of the Bill Battle era. The Vols had gone 10-13-1 in SEC play in Battle’s last four seasons, and Majors only went 4-7 in his first year. He managed to take the Vols to a 5-5-1 mark in his second year and then improved to 7-5 in his third.
If Pruitt follows the historical trends of what Tennessee’s previous head coaches have done, then the Vols should at least be in a bowl game after the 2019 regular season.
Here’s how all of Tennessee’s head coaches have done over the last century from their first season to their second:
M.B. Banks — 6-2-1 (1921), 8-2 (1922)
Robert Neyland — 8-1 (1926), 8-0-1 (1927)
W.H. Britton — 4-5 (1935), N/A
John Barnhill — 8-2 (1-41), 9-1-1 (1942)
Harvey Robinson — 6-4-1 (1953), 4-6 (1954)
Bowden Wyatt — 6-3-1 (1955), 10-1 (1956)
Jim McDonald — 5-5 (1963), N/A
Doug Dickey — 4-5-1 (1964), 8-1-2 (1965)
Bill Battle — 11-1 (1970), 10-2 (1971)
Johnny Majors — 4-7 (1977), 5-5-1 (1978)
Phillip Fulmer — 10-2 (1993), 8-4 (1994)
Lane Kiffin — 7-6 (2009), N/A
Derek Dooley — 6-7 (2010), 5-7 (2011)
Butch Jones — 5-7 (2013), 7-6 (2014)
Jeremy Pruitt — 5-7 (2018), ?