Tennessee football: Recent leap year seasons unpleasant for Vols coaches

Leap year is something Tennessee football head coaches have wanted to avoid recently. The last three Volunteers leaders struggled the following season.

Happy Leap Day! This comes around once ever four years, and for Tennessee football coaches recently, the ensuing season hasn’t been pretty. Each of the last three head coaches for UT had a very disappointing year following Leap Day, and it affected everything about their coaching tenure on Rocky Top.

Dating back to 2008, Phillip Fulmer got fired. A program that won the SEC East the year before stumbled to a 5-7 season and could never deal with the departure of David Cutcliffe. That was the year the Vols fell outside of the top 25 in the second week of the season and didn’t return for another four years.

The program returned to the top 25 two weeks after the 2012 opener. However, in his third year, Derek Dooley suffered through a historically bad defensive season with Sal Sunseri at the helm, and that ruined a historically great offensive season. Tennessee football went 5-7, and after they had fallen to 4-7, Dooley was fired.

So in back to back leap years, the Vols had head coaches fired during Leap Year. Butch Jones was a bit of a different story. His program had gone 9-4 in 2015, his third year, and finished in the top 25 for the first time since 2007. With everybody back, 2016 was the year that the Vols would return to prominence, and they began the year ranked in the top 10.

Well, it looked good at first, as the team kept pulling out come-from-behind wins and moved to 5-0, erasing the 11-game losing streak to the Florida Gators with a dominant second half and then beating the Georgia Bulldogs on the road with the famous Hail Mary. So they appeared to be in good shape.

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After that start, though, Tennessee football suffered a double-overtime loss at the Texas A&M Aggies, they got blown out by the Alabama Crimson Tide, and then, coming off a bye, they suffered a heartbreaking loss at the South Carolina Gamecocks with Will Muschamp starting a 17-year-old in Jake Bentley at quarterback. That was embarrassing.

Following that losing streak, the Vols cost themselves the SEC East, which they were predicted to win. Jalen Hurd and Venzell Boulware departed mid-season. Jones referred to his players as “Champions of Life.” Then a loss at the Vanderbilt Commodores cost them a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Everything unraveled because of that disappointing finish, including a bad recruiting class, and with Joshua Dobbs gone the next year, the Vols fell to 4-8. Jones was fired. While 2017 got him fired, 2016 set the stage.

Simply put, leap years have been seasons that either fired Vols head coaches or got them on the hot seat. After a strong finish in 2019 and then a top 10 recruiting class, Jeremy Pruitt certainly heads into his third year with a lot of hype.

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But an underachieving season would continue this tradition that has plagued Tennessee football. Leap years end up costing them. The last time they overachieved during a Leap Year was 2004, when they surprised the world by winning the SEC East and going 10-3. Ever since then, things have been disastrous.