Each Monday we recap the previous week’s news and notes from around Tennessee Athletics. This is the place for Vol fans to catch up on any of the action they may have missed from the last week.
Last week on Rocky Top was a week many Volunteer fans would probably like to forget. Both men’s and women’s basketball teams suffered losses, while the football program once again found itself in a state of transition. The entire athletics department was also rocked by a sudden change in leadership.
Written by Rocky Top Insider contributor Spencer Morrell
The winds of change swept through the Tennessee football facility at a gale force level on Monday afternoon. Head football coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired for cause after three seasons at the helm of the program. His dismissal stemmed from an internal investigation into recruiting violations during his time at Tennessee. Inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton were also fired for cause. The director and assistant director of football player personnel, a football quality control coach, and four members from the on-campus recruiting staff were also terminated.
Pruitt’s record was 16-19 in his three years as the Vols’ head man, which includes a 3-7 record last season. Chancellor Donde Plowman made a point to note that Pruitt was fired “for cause” due to breaking his contract, which means that Tennessee will not have to pay Pruitt’s $12.8 million buyout. A search firm has been hired to assist in searching for the Vols’ next head coach.
Athletics director Phillip Fulmer also elected to retire after three years in the position. Fulmer expressed interest in having a new AD hire the new head football coach so that the two newcomers may forge a long-term stable bond. Plowman acquiesced to his request, and Fulmer was to remain in the position until a new AD was found.
Fulmer took the reins of the athletics department in December of 2017 after the unceremonious firing of previous AD John Currie. In his most consequential act as AD, Fulmer hired the then defensive coordinator for Alabama, Jeremy Pruitt, to be the next head coach of the Vols. Fulmer was also responsible for the termination of Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick, after which he hired Kellie Jolly Harper to take over the storied women’s basketball program.
It did not take long for Tennessee to find its new AD as the Vols poached athletics director Danny White from the University of Central Florida on Thursday. White led UCF athletics to dizzying heights of success during his five-year tenure in Orlando. White brought two successful football coaches to UCF in Scott Frost and Josh Heupel, and the football program held a 41-8 record during White’s time at UCF. White also hired Johnny Dawkins to coach the men’s basketball team, who led the team to its first NCAA Tournament win in history. White hired a women’s head basketball coach as well, choosing Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who led the Knights to their first at-large bid into the Women’s NCAA Tournament in program history. White’s first order of business in Knoxville will be to hire a football coach, a hire that will undoubtedly define his time on Rocky Top.
The No. 6 ranked Volunteers were in action twice last week. For their first game of the week, the Vols travelled to Gainesville to take on a struggling, and injury depleted Florida team. The Gators were missing three of their five starters, but unfortunately for the Vols that did not seem to matter. Florida caught the Vols flat-footed as the game started with Florida jumping out to an early lead. Tennessee’s defense, which is usually stellar, could not contain the Gators who scored more than triple Tennessee’s fast break point total. The Vols were down 11 at the half, and the second half was not any better. The Vols’ offense failed them as they could only muster 22 points in the second half on their way to a 49-75 walloping at the hands of the Gators. John Fulkerson led the Vols with 15 in the loss.
Tennessee looked to avoid a repeat subpar performance on Saturday against No. 19 Mizzou in Thompson-Boling Arena. However, those hopes were dashed quickly as the game shaped up to be a near carbon-copy of Tuesday’s game against Florida. However, this time the Vols not only came out flat, but they turned the ball over at an alarming rate. This let Mizzou quickly build a double-digit lead midway through the first half. However, the Vols were able to pull themselves together by half time, going into the break only down six points. The Vols would have their opportunities to take control of the game in the second half, but they seized none of those chances. The Volunteers would end up losing to the Tigers 73-64. The Vols never led and accumulated 18 turnovers. Mizzou’s Xavier Pinson carved up the Vols’ defense all night, finishing with a game-high 27 points. Yves Pons led the Vols with 20 points, while Josiah-Jordan James and Victor Bailey Jr. both contributed 12. After last week’s two losses, Tennessee is now 10-3 on the season.
Lady Vol Basketball
The 25th-ranked Lady Vols took the hardwood twice last week. Their first matchup was a much-anticipated Thursday night battle against an old rival: the UConn Huskies. UConn came into the game ranked No. 3 in the nation and undefeated on the season. The game lived up to its top billing as the teams battled back and forth for a full 40 minutes.
The Lady Vols started the game strong and seemed to physically overwhelm the Huskies at points during the first half. They were also able to limit their turnovers, which has been a consistent problem for them this season. Tennessee took a 35-34 lead into half time and managed to grow that 1-point lead to 4 points by the end of the 3rd quarter.
However, the Lady Vols struggled to manufacture offense in the 4th quarter, and their lead disappeared. The Lady Vols battled back, but a late 3-point dagger from UConn freshman phenom Paige Bueckers sealed Tennessee’s fate. UT fell to UConn 61-67 in a game that may have sparked a permanent renewal in the once dormant rivalry. Junior Rae Burrell led the Lady Vols with 18 points and 8 rebounds, while Senior Rennia Davis contributed 11 points and 9 rebounds.
The Lady Vols’ week did not get any easier on Sunday afternoon. Tennessee was originally scheduled to play Vanderbilt on Sunday, however the Commodores elected to end their season early due to COVID-19 issues. The SEC stepped in and replaced Sunday’s game against Vanderbilt with a matchup with No. 12 Kentucky.
Tennessee brought their defense on Sunday afternoon and made a statement. UT jumped out to an early 12-3 lead and never looked back, dominating the Wildcats for 40 minutes. Tennessee limited Kentucky to 29% shooting from the field and held SEC Preseason Player of the Year Rhyne Howard to 3-of-16 shooting.
The Lady Vols bullied Big Blue on the boards and in the lane, grabbing 56 rebounds and scoring 44 points in the paint. Tennessee shared the ball well as Kellie Harper’s squad tallied 19 assists for the game. 6-foot-5 sophomore Tamari Key led the Lady Vols with 19 points, most of which came in the paint. Senior Rennia Davis recorded a double-double with 15 points and 20 rebounds, while Junior Rae Burrell scored 13 points. Davis’ double-double was the 35th of her career, which ties her at 5th for the most double-doubles in program history. After splitting games this week, the Lady Vols are now 10-3 this season.
This week, the men’s basketball team will welcome Mississippi State (9-7) to town on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, before taking on the Kansas Jayhawks (10-5) on Saturday. The Vols’ game against the Jayhawks will be a part of the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The Vols lost last year’s game at Kansas 68-74.
The Lady Vols will continue their conference slate this week by playing Ole Miss (7-5) on Thursday night at 7 pm. They’ll then take on the Florida Gators (9-6) on Sunday afternoon. Both games will be at home in Knoxville.