Row the Boat to Rocky Top
The Tennessee Volunteers football program has had a brutal week. On Monday, after an internal investigation, the school fired Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause based on allegations of recruiting violations during his time in Knoxville. The “for cause” designation is significant, meaning Tennessee will not have to pay $12 million to buyout Pruitt’s contract. On that same day, Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer stepped down from his post. Several names have been mentioned to take over the helm in Knoxville. James Franklin, Hugh Freeze, Kevin Steele, to name a few. But another name has popped up on the coaching search radar-current Minnesota Head Coach P.J.Fleck. Could Fleck row the boat to Rocky Top?
The Vols quickly moved to find a replacement for Fulmer, hiring Danny White, the AD at the University of Central Florida. White’s priority is not only to find a replacement for Pruitt but find a way to change the toxic culture at Tennessee. And as the week progressed, current Tennessee players entered the transfer portal. Recruits asked to be released from their signed letters of intent.
Fleck (56-41 in 8 years, .577) could be the one to make that change.
“Row the Boat”
“Row the boat” is the never give up mantra, created by Fleck in 2011. There are three parts:
Represents the energy you bring to every aspect of your life.
A symbol of sacrifice. What are you willing to give up for something you haven’t had?
The direction of where you’re traveling and who you choose to travel with: the players, coaching staff, school administration, and athletic director.
When Fleck was the head coach at Western Michigan from 2013-2016, the saying “row the boat” was so ingrained in the football program that the school trademarked it.
Fleck at Western Michigan (30-22)
While at Western Michigan, Fleck was a 2-time MAC Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2016.
The Broncos were led on offense by WR Corey Davis, who led the MAC in receiving three consecutive years (2014, 2015, and 2016). Davis was a Consensus All-American in 2016 and totaled 5278 career receiving yards, 52 TDs, and averaged 16 yards per catch.
The Broncos scored 34 points or more in 11 straight games.
Under Fleck, the Broncos defense was pretty stingy at times too. In 2013, they were #4 in the FBS in pass defense, allowing just 169 yards per game. In 2016, they allowed 19 points per game, good enough for #15 nationally.
Fleck at Minnesota (26-19)
After going 13-1 in 2016 and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl with Western Michigan, Fleck was hired as the head man at Minnesota in 2017.
He would go on to win the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2019. That year, the Golden Gophers would go 11-2 and were led on offense by QB Tanner Morgan, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game (250 yards/game), and passed for 3253 yards, 30 TDs, 7 INT (in 318 pass attempts).
Also in 2019, Fleck coached a pretty good player on defense in DB Antoine Winfield, Jr., who was named Consensus All-American after recording 7 INTs, including one returned for a TD.
The Gopher defense was ranked in the Top Ten that year:
- #10 in FBS in Total Defense, allowing 306 yards per game.
- #9 in FBS in Passing Defense, allowing 184 yards per game.
Minnesota won back to back bowl games in 2018 and 2019.
Tennessee Under Jeremy Pruitt
The Vols under Pruitt, a former assistant coach under Nick Saban at Alabama, woefully underachieved, posting a .457 winning percentage. His three-year record:
- 2018= 5-7
- 2019= 8-5
- 2020= 3-7
- 16-19 career record at Tennessee
- 1 winning season
- 1 bowl appearance
- 2018= ranked last in the SEC in Total Offense (325 yards/game).
- 2019= finished 12th in the SEC in Total Offense (365 yards/game).
- 2020= ranked 11th in the SEC in Total Offense (346 yards/game).
2020: Scored 19 points or LESS in 6 out of 10 games. The Vols ranked last in 3rd down conversions at 30%. And, they ranked 13th in red-zone conversions at 73%.
- 2018= ranked 9th in Total Defense (377 yards/game).
- 2019= 334 yards per game in Total Defense, ranked 6th.
- 2020= ranked 7th in Total Defense (407 yards/game).
2020: Gave up 0ver 400 yards of total offense in 4 games last season, and gave up 587 yards vs Alabama.
Row the Boat to Rocky Top?
The Vols need to change. P.J. Fleck has had success at his last two coaching stops, but maybe just as important is the never give up attitude he has instilled in the programs he has coached, the players he has coached, and throughout the fan bases to achieve the success that Tennessee so desperately needs right now.
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Material for this article sourced from: “Tennessee has a player exodus on its hands after firing of coach Jeremy Pruitt”, By Mike Wilson, Knoxville News Sentinel, January 2020; cfbstats.com; “So what is P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” all about?” by Declan Goff, bringmethenews.com, Updated: March 8, 2018. Original: January 7, 2017; sports-reference.com.