How Tennessee football found momentum one year after facing such a grim future | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

A sign on a shelf behind Chancellor Donde Plowman’s desk inside her office at the University of Tennessee reads: The best is yet to come.

As it applies to Vols football, such thinking might be based in reality – in no small part because of personnel changes UT triggered last January.

Tennessee’s 7-6 record in coach Josh Heupel’s first season exceeded expectations, while speeding away from the pall that had been cast over the program. Meanwhile, athletics director Danny White, Plowman’s pick to replace Phillip Fulmer, brought an aggressive, modern approach to an athletic department in need of it.

“I say this all the time about football: It just feels good to feel good again,” Plowman said during an exclusive interview with Knox News and the USA TODAY Network.

On this day one year ago, Plowman announced a sweeping leadership change within the football program after an internal investigation unearthed what she described then as a stunning amount of NCAA rule-breaking conduct by bad actors within the football program.

ANALYSIS:One year later, Tennessee football infractions case could hinge on NCAA policy changes

Tennessee tossed overboard coach Jeremy Pruitt, two of his assistants and seven other football support staffers. Conveniently, the scofflaws’ alleged malfeasance allowed the university to enact for-cause firing provisions in Pruitt’s contract, allowing the university to rid itself of one of its worst football coaches since World War I without paying his $12.6 million buyout.

Tennessee announced that same day that Fulmer would retire, ending the legendary former coach’s miscast role as AD.

UT also affirmed a continued commitment to cooperate with the NCAA’s probe into the impermissible football recruiting tactics alleged to have occurred during Pruitt’s tenure.

Tennessee isn’t out of the woods yet – the NCAA investigation still could produce stiff penalties – but its moves have paid off so far.

TOPPMEYER:Reviewing my best and worst SEC football takes from the 2021 season

Importantly, Tennessee upgraded its coach and AD, the two most important figures in its athletic department.

Firing Pruitt seemed obvious.

Allegations of cheating don’t always end coaching tenures, but allegations of cheating are a good way for embarrassing coaches with losing records to get fired.

Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt is seen during the third quarter of a game between Tennessee and Missouri at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons, including a 3-7 mark in 2020. His failures weren't confined to his record. Pruitt cost his employer a $100,000 fine for dressing like a stooge during two televised games, wearing his gaiter around his neck and over his head while leaving his mouth and nose exposed, a violation of the SEC’s pandemic-induced facial covering policy for the 2020 season.

Unlike the scoring-averse Pruitt, Heupel is acquainted with the concept of reaching the end zone, a key to winning football games. Heupel's up-tempo, quarterback-friendly offense jumpstarted a unit that hadn't excelled since the 2016 season.

As a bonus, Heupel grasps subject-verb agreement better than his predecessor, and he’s a presentable figure for the university’s front porch.

When Tennessee invited local elected officials to a football practice last year, Heupel chatted them up.

“He comes in and talks to those legislators in their language,” Plowman said. “It’s genuine, and that sticks with people.”

Tennessee doesn’t need to offer Heupel a lifetime contract or commission a statue after one seven-win season. You might recall that four months before firing Pruitt, Tennessee recklessly awarded him a two-year contract extension that included a scheduled raise.

Cautious optimism remains the best approach with Heupel, who became Tennessee’s first coach since Lane Kiffin to post a winning record in his initial season.

Beverly Davenport, UT’s since-fired chancellor who preceded Plowman, hastily hired Fulmer, who hired Pruitt.

Fulmer served as a familiar figurehead, but his feet were stuck in Tennessee’s past.

By wiping the slate, Tennessee reset the table with this administration’s thumbprints on it. Plowman emerged as a shrewd and determined leader amid the turmoil of last January. Her swift hire of White, an outsider who had never worked at UT, signaled a change of direction.

White is thin-skinned but innovative. Armed with big ideas, he’s spearheading a facelift for Tennessee athletics.

To wit: Renovation construction is underway inside Neyland Stadium, marking the most substantial dirt-moving in a years-old project that previously failed to gain traction.

“I see a lot of signs of health,” Plowman said of the football program’s direction.

This seems like the intermission of Tennessee’s reboot after last January’s saga, and it’s unclear whether the Vols will be as triumphant in the second act.

Pruitt’s lawyer, in October, threatened a fiery lawsuit if UT didn’t settle with his client. The university didn’t budge, and there’s no record of a lawsuit. Asked where that situation stands, Plowman said, “You know what I know.”

What I know is, a standoff works fine for Tennessee, because a standoff doesn’t equal a draw. It equates to the university retaining Pruitt’s $12.6 million buyout. Pruitt spent 2021 as an NFL assistant with the New York Giants, but the Giants' firing of coach Joe Judge last week leaves Pruitt in need of a job.

ADAMS:Early look at SEC East in '22: Tennessee Vols on way up, Florida to stay down

Meanwhile, this week’s NCAA convention in Indianapolis might produce a change of direction in NCAA enforcement that could help UT with its case. The NCAA is expected to adopt a new constitution that would encourage protection from sanctions that punish athletes who are innocent of infractions. In essence, that would reduce the likelihood of postseason bans as penalties, especially for cases in which the rule-violating coaches and players are no longer with the program.

The NCAA previously proved to be a fickle dance partner for schools that cooperate in investigations, and it’s unclear whether a constitution change would allow Tennessee to fend off crippling penalties. Still, any change that lightens the risk of postseason bans as penalties would be favorable for Tennessee, after it declined to self-impose a bowl ban.

In January 2021, Tennessee football faced a grim future.

A year later, Plowman says the Vols “are moving on,” and although she adds that she’s not naïve about the challenges and uncertainty ahead, she’s embracing a positive outlook based in part on the momentum she detects in and around the program. The chancellor joked that, like sports talk-show host Paul Finebaum, she considers UT’s record to be 8-5 for 2021, a nod to Tennessee’s narrow overtime loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl, which included a controversial call that went against the Vols.

As Plowman assessed the health of Tennessee football last week, she could look out the windows of her fifth-floor office inside Andy Holt Tower and see the football program’s practice fields.

“Do you know why this office is here? … Somebody, back in the day, wanted to be able to watch football practice. That’s the story I’ve been told,” Plowman said.

That view of Tennessee’s program is brighter than it was a year ago.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.