1. Hiring assistant coaches who dramatically change the scheme
This is what did in Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley more than anybody else. Fulmer was always great about promoting from within and keeping continuity on his staff. But when offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe departed the Duke Blue Devils in 2008, he made the mistake of not promoting Trooper Taylor to offensive coordinator.
Instead, Fulmer brought in Dave Clawson, viewed as a splash hire at the time. However, Clawson took a heavy mental approach to his offensive scheme, which makes it confusing for players to learn in a first year. It was a complete departure from what the entire offense was used to.
On top of that, the offense wasn’t a fit for any of the quarterbacks on the roster. So this turned into a disastrous 5-7 season for Tennessee football, which is why Fulmer got fired. It was also another case of forcing a system on players.
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In 2012, Dooley made the same mistake. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left, and Dooley was not in a position to find a big-name replacement. However, he could have had Kevin Steele. This is where bad luck happens. Steele had one bad game at this moment with the Clemson Tigers, surrendering 70 points to the West Virginia Mountaineers. So the Vols had to turn elsewhere.
That elsewhere was Sal Sunseri, who was coaching linebackers for the Alabama Crimson Tide. In addition to not being cut out for a defensive coordinator job, Sunseri forced the 3-4 transition on the defense.
Now, Jeremy Pruitt is doing the same thing, but it’s his first year. This was Dooley’s third, and he was under pressure to deliver immediate results. The decision to hire Sunseri proved disastrous and is clearly what did him in.
Tennessee football’s offense was all-time great that year. They scored 44 points against the Georgia Bulldogs, 31 against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, 35 against the South Carolina Gamecocks, and 48 against the Missouri Tigers. But they lost all of those games.
With the right coordinator, even Steele, the Vols go 9-3 at the very worst that year. And they would have likely been in the right mindset to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores and maybe even the Florida Gators. So 11-1 was possible. Instead, they were 5-7, and Dooley got fired.
It all came down to a bad defensive coordinator, just as Fulmer’s career came down to a bad offensive coordinator hire. If Pruitt succeeds in Knoxville, he’ll have to replace staff members. When that happens, he needs to make the right hires to continue success. Nick Saban continues to do that, which is why he is great. It’s incumbent on Pruitt to do the same for Tennessee football.