As Jeremy Pruitt walked to midfield of Neyland Stadium to congratulate Georgia head coach Kirby Smart on his 43-14 victory over the Volunteers, there were likely a multitude of things flying through his head. The Volunteers were getting off to one of their roughest starts in program history, falling to 1-4 with losses to the Georgia State Panthers, BYU Cougars, Florida Gators, and, now, Georgia Bulldogs. Tennessee fans, who had been accustomed to failure over the last decade, began to buckle in for what was destined to be one of the worst seasons in the history of their beloved Volunteers’ program, and for some, faith even began to sway on if Pruitt was the right person to bring the Vols back to their glory days. However, even in the toughest of times and the darkest of hours, Pruitt continued to relay one of his salient principles to his team: “You just have to find a way to win.”
Many past Tennessee teams would have ignored the comments, crumbled, and waved the white flag as they waited for the season to come to a disastrous end. However, for this Tennessee team, that was simply not an option. They had complete faith in their head coach and when he spoke they listened. When he said, “You have to find a way to win,” it meant something to them. At the beginning of the Volunteers’ season, following the loss to Georgia State, Jauan Jennings, one of Tennessee’s leaders, said: “I didn’t sign up for a one game fight, this is a 12-game fight.”
Following that handshake with Kirby Smart the Volunteers won 6 of their final 7 football games, the lone loss coming against the top ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Jennings’ comments couldn’t have aged any better, they continued to fight because they believed in their head coach, and were motivated to win for themselves.
After Tennessee took care of business against their in-state rivals from Nashville, the Vanderbilt Commodores, by a score of 28-10, rumors began to swirl regarding the question of whether Tennessee would have any players who chose to sit out of Taxslayer Gator Bowl to preserve their draft stock. Trey Smith’s response to these rumors spoke volumes, he said: “That was never an option, we worked too hard.” Smith’s comments not only show that he was putting his team’s success over his individual future, but it also shows that giving up was never an option, which is a direct result of the mutual faith between the players and Jeremy Pruitt.
In the end, the faith Jeremy Pruitt’s players had in him not only resurrected Tennessee’s season but also restored excitement in the University of Tennessee’s football program for the first time in over two years. Make no mistake about it, this season was a monumental step in the right direction but there is still a lot of work to be done. But for now, the foundation has been laid out and phase two of the rebuild on Rocky Top is set to begin momentarily.