Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt didn’t just speak to local reporters and on the main stage at SEC Media Days this year; he made the rounds with several different outlets. One of those stops was on The Paul Finebaum Show in the late afternoon.
Pruitt was one of several head coaches to speak with Finebaum on Tuesday, and the two covered a myriad of topics. The Vols’ second-year head coach discussed “playing the right way” and why it’s important to him and his program to do so, and Finebaum followed that up with a question asking Pruitt what ingredients he still needed to build a successful program.
According to Pruitt, the Vols still need some confidence.
“We need confidence. We need confidence as a program, we need confidence as a fan base,” Pruitt explained. “How do you get it? You do it by having success. You do it by kinda doing the same things over and over again.”
Repetition is important when developing good (or bad) habits, and Pruitt and his coaching staff are preaching the importance of creating the right kinds of habits in order to build that confidence.
When Pruitt first arrived at Tennessee, he spent a lot of time trying to overhaul things and change what he thought was detracting from UT reaching its peak. Because of that, Pruitt said he lost out on building relationships with his players like he should have. In fact, Pruitt even thinks that’s the main reason Tennessee faltered down the stretch of the 2018 season.
“We lose probably a couple of games because of mental errors, then we lose a couple of games probably because maybe we didn’t fight the way we needed to fight at the beginning of the year,” Pruitt said on Tuesday. “Then you go back and think, ‘Whose fault is that?’ It’s obviously my fault as the head football coach. Then you go back and look at the teams that I’ve been associated with, or the groups of men that I’ve coached over the years. That’s not the been trademark of teams that I’ve coached. We’ve played the right way. We’ve played smart. We didn’t beat ourselves. So I’m sitting there, and it’s, ‘Okay, how does this happen?’ So I go back, and it’s pretty simple. The first six months I’m at the University of Tennessee and Knoxville, I’m trying to fix everything. We want to get the weight room right. We want to get the practice fields right. We want to get nutrition right. It’s everything that goes into building the program for the next 10 to 20 years.
“Well, I lost the most important thing to me, which is our players themselves, and the relationships that have always been a strength of mine.”
But that was Pruitt’s first year. He’s had a whole offseason from December till now to work on improving his relationships and making sure everyone in the program gets more familiar with each other.
Pruitt told Finebaum that because of that and the strides he’s seen both in the weight room and in the film room, he expects to see different results on the field this fall.
“In the second year, it’s obvious with our team, with our program, with everybody that’s associated with our program, that the familiarity with each other is there,” Pruitt stated. “We’re starting to see some strides gained whether it’s in the weight room or just knowledge of the game. As we do that, you should see changes on the field.”
Typically, the second year of a head coach at Tennessee has shown improvement from the first. Of Tennessee’s 11 head coaches that lasted at least two seasons over the last 100 years, six of them showed at least a one-win improvement from their first year to their second year.
By the end of Year Two at an SEC program, fans can usually tell if a coach is going to cut it or not.
Nick Saban at Alabama and Kirby Smart at Georgia are poor examples to use in comparison to Jeremy Pruitt. The situation Smart inherited at Georgia was significantly healthier than the one Pruitt took over at UT, and Saban was an already established head coach with a national title to his name in the college game. But there are other SEC examples to point to.
Before taking the head coaching job at Florida, Dan Mullen made his mark in the SEC at Mississippi State. He was a first-time head coach with the Bulldogs in 2009, and his first squad went 5-7. His second team finished the regular season 8-4 and capped off the year with a dominating 52-14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
Mark Richt was also a first-time head coach when he took over at Georgia in 2001, and his Bulldogs went 8-4 that season with a loss in the Music City Bowl. His second Georgia team? They finished 13-1 overall and defeated Florida State 26-13 in the Sugar Bowl to finish No. 3 in the country in 2002.
Even Mark Stoops, who is now considered a highly successful SEC head coach, showed major improvement in his second season. Stoops had never been a collegiate head coach before taking over at Kentucky in 2013, and his first Wildcat squad went 2-10. But his second Kentucky team in 2014 showed major improvements, going 5-7 overall. It would take Stoops longer than Mullen and Richt to take that next step after his second season, but he proved that patience can certainly prove valuable.
Pruitt has said and done all the right things this offseason to give Vol fans hope that 2019 can be much better than his first year at the helm. Now his team just has to go out and build up their confidence.