Despite everything that’s happened the last 11 years, Tennessee is still 11th in winning percentage all-time, still second in the SEC behind Alabama. This is Tennessee’s historical DNA in both football and basketball: the first challenger to the thrones in Tuscaloosa and Lexington.
But Tennessee’s struggles from Phillip Fulmer’s final season through Jeremy Pruitt’s first are unique among their blue-blood brethren. I’m not sure any of the 15 winningest programs in college football history have seen a stretch of sub-.500 football in the modern era like the one Tennessee is currently enduring.
We already know 2017 was Tennessee’s worst season of at least the last 50 years, and not just in wins and losses: that season finishing in the 17th percentile in estimated S&P+ means Pruitt inherited a deeper hole than any of his current SEC contemporaries in year one. That appears to have been rock bottom, but as we know it took more than a one-year drop-off from 2016 to 2017 to truly get there.
From 2008-18, the Vols are 67-70. That .489 winning percentage is 73rd nationally in that span, better only than Kentucky (.457) and Vanderbilt (.428) in the SEC. Some Top 15 programs have hovered around .500 or even further below for several years in the modern era, but I couldn’t find any stretch of sub-.500 football for this long.
Before we spend some time looking at how the Vols have gotten out of similar holes (if not quite as deep and complex) in their own history, I wanted to see if there were comparisons with other historic programs. Here’s as close as I could reasonably come in search of those comparisons:
- All-Time Winning Percentage: .724, fifth
- 1994-99: 30-38-1
Oklahoma went 6-6 in Gary Gibbs’ final season, then hired Howard Schnellenberger. He went 5-5-1 in 1995, then resigned. They hired John Blake, who went 12-22 in three years. Then Bob Stoops went 7-5 in his first season. Of course, they won the BCS title in year two.
Southern Cal 1996-2001
- All-Time Winning Percentage: .698, seventh
- 1996-2001: 37-35
John Robinson won the Rose Bowl in 1995, but went 6-6 and 6-5 the next two years and was out. Paul Hackett came in and went 8-5, 6-6, and 5-7; Wikipedia notes it was USC’s first consecutive non-winning seasons since 1960-61. Pete Carroll went 6-6 in his first season. After that: 11-2, 12-1 and a title, 13-0 and another title.
- All-Time Winning Percentage: .652, 13th
- 1989-94: 25-41
Mike Archer went 4-7 and 5-6 in his last two seasons. Curley Hallman went 16-28 over the next four seasons, never making a bowl game and leading a 2-9 squad in 1992. Gerry DiNardo was hired and went 7-4-1, 10-2, and 9-3 his first three seasons, but stumbled to 4-7 and 3-9 to close out the 1990’s. LSU hired Nick Saban and the rest is history.
So we’ve seen top-tier teams struggle as much or more than Tennessee in recent history, but only for about half as long. Programs like Oklahoma had unusual coaching turnover that contributed to the problem. While it’s difficult to duplicate Tennessee’s weirdness in the last 11 years, programs we might point to with similar circumstances both found their way out of it sooner and weren’t as bad for as long. Alabama had Mike DuBose in 2000, Dennis Franchione for two seasons, the infamous Mike Price hiring and firing, then Mike Shula to take over in 2003. But the Tide still went 53-40 on the field between DuBose’s final season and Saban’s first, though the official, post-violation record books have them at 32-46 in that span. Other programs had individual coaches that definitely didn’t work – Rich Rodriguez, Gerry Faust – but the next guy brought an upswing.
It’s obvious Butch Jones wasn’t that guy, but it’s still interesting to note how close he was to breaking Tennessee’s down cycle for at least one or two seasons. If the Vols stop Florida on any fourth down in 2015 to win the SEC East, and/or beat Vanderbilt to make the New Year’s Six in 2016, Jones would’ve been seen more like LSU’s DiNardo: not the guy long-term, but brought Tennessee back to tangible prominence for at least a moment and made life easier on the next guy. But you can’t really say the same thing about a pair of 9-4’s when they’re followed by the worst season of at least the modern era.
So we rightfully keep looking at the valley Tennessee has been in as a continuous walk for the last 11 years, with the sub-.500 football to prove it. If there’s a benefit here, it’s the way the length of the journey has forced healthier expectations upon us for Jeremy Pruitt’s second season. It wasn’t one bad hire or even six years away as was the case for Oklahoma, Southern Cal, and LSU. One great hire put a national championship in their hands in year two for Stoops, year three for Carroll, and year four for Saban. Given the length of Tennessee’s absence from that conversation, it should rightfully take a little more time to figure out if Pruitt is that kind of great coach, with other steps rightfully celebrated along the way.