Tennessee football: 2012 should give Vols cause to pause about praising staff

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the inside of Neyland Stadium during a game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers on September 15, 2012 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the inside of Neyland Stadium during a game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers on September 15, 2012 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football’s staff is getting lots of praise from Jeremy Pruitt and the nation. But history should give the Volunteers cause to pause.

Jeremy Pruitt said on Thursday that he believes Tennessee football has the best staff in the nation. He even pulled a Donald Trump-like move when he said, “A lot of people say, ‘Hey, I’ve got the best coaching staff in the country'” without naming one person who said that.

Adding to that, all five assistants interviewed on Thursday also talked up how great the staff is. And it’s become a national story. To be fair, Jim Chaney was a major upgrade at offensive coordinator, and Tee Martin is a huge boost at receivers coach. Derrick Ansley is the most qualified person to ever be defensive coordinator without actual experience at it.

Looking at all that, yes, this is a great staff on paper. But Vol fans should be wary of such talk. If this staff is so elite, how come two members of this staff were on the 2012 Vols, the same team that went 5-7 and saw Derek Dooley get fired?

One of those coaches, Chaney, is back in the same role he was in on that staff. Now, true, Tennessee football had a record-setting offensive year that season. But the Vols still went 5-7 and 1-7 in the SEC.

Of course, the logical thing to do is blame the defense given the numbers the Vols’ offense put up. That’s fine. Dooley brought in a Nick Saban assistant from the Alabama Crimson Tide, a guy he was familiar with, and promoted him to defensive coordinator, the first time he ever had that title in FBS play, and his 3-4 defense was a disaster. We’re obviously talking about Sal Sunseri.

Well, guess what. This year’s defensive coordinator on Rocky Top is a former Saban assistant at Alabama, a guy Pruitt is familiar with, and a guy who is in his first defensive coordinator role ever at the FBS level. Oh, and like Sunseri, Derrick Ansley is running the 3-4 scheme. So how is there anymore reason for excitement behind this staff than there was in 2012?

In fact, if you want another crazy fact, don’t forget that Ansley was actually on that staff in 2012 as a defensive backs coach. So both coordinators were on the 2012 team that went 5-7 and saw its head coach fired. Why, again, should anybody be high on the Vols based on their staff?

Is it because this year they also have Tee Martin, a former Vol who is a nationally recognized recruiter? Well, in 2012, the Vols had Jay Graham, another former Vol who is a nationally recognized recruiter. You should hear Jimbo Fisher talk about Graham right now with the Texas A&M Aggies.

And don’t just take 2012 into account. Remember how one of the selling points to hiring Lane Kiffin in 2009 was the elite staff he could bring in? Yeah, how’d that work out after he took half of them with him to the USC Trojans? What happens if Saban surprisingly retires after this year, Pruitt has a good season, Alabama calls him home and he takes half his staff with him?

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Taking all this into account, history proves there is no reason to sell a program based on a staff. Saban, for instance, had nobody on last year’s staff that was the same from his 2016 staff, just two years earlier, and still made the national title game.

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Chad Morris was hired by the Arkansas Razorbacks due to his reputation as an offensive genius, which he developed coaching under Dabo Swinney as the Clemson Tigers’ offensive coordinator. But since he has left, all Swinney has done is win four straight ACC Championships, go to four straight College Football Playoffs and win two national championships in three years.

The lesson is that Tennessee football will go only as far as its head coach, Jeremy Pruitt goes, along with the support from the administration. A staff is important, don’t get me wrong. David Cutcliffe and John Chavis serving as Phillip Fulmer’s offensive and defensive coordinators proved that. But the staff is nothing without the head coach.

If you need proof, look at Bob Shoop. He was the most sought-after defensive coordinator while with the Penn State Nittany Lions. Last year, as a defensive coordinator with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, he was recognized nationally for the job he did. But in two years with the Vols under Butch Jones, his defenses fell apart.

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Having the right staff is important. Identifying the right talent is also important. But a head coach who can keep it all together also matters. A bunch of headliners on a staff is not going to win anything, and Tennessee football’s own history proves that.