First and 10: The truth hurts, but here it is. Tennessee, you will never be elite again
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
I’ve got some harsh words for those in power at Tennessee, something they don’t want to hear but better embrace.
It’s not the 1990s anymore. Tennessee will never be elite again.
After yet another coach failed to make it work on Rocky Top and Jeremy Pruitt was fired after 3 seasons and amid an NCAA investigation, it can no longer be denied: The days of Tennessee consistently winning big and competing at the highest level of college football are long gone.
I said it 3 years ago when the Vols made their 4th hire in 10 years and will say it again and again until those on Rocky Top can hear it loud and clear. Until the most relentless, raucous and thin-skinned fan base (I say this lovingly, Vols fans) in all of college football finally and humbly capitulates.
It’s over, folks.
You might get a one-off season every now and then where the Vols make it to the SEC Championship Game. You might strike lightning in a bottle and land a recruit everyone missed (see: Lamar Jackson), and he might be enough to win the East Division.
But this program will never again win like it did in the golden years of Phil Fulmer and Peyton Manning and Tee Martin and Al Wilson. Never.
Tennessee will never be elite again.
There’s a simple reason for this declaration, and it’s as undeniable as the long line of failure at Tennessee since Fulmer was forced out after the 2008 season: players.
Players win championships. The more elite players you have, the greater your chance of winning – and winning big.
Tennessee is the SEC’s version of Nebraska, a former college football power that continues to circulate through coaching failures without addressing the true north reason.
It’s always about players, and more important, player procurement. And it’s never been more difficult for Tennessee to get enough elite players to make a difference.
“There’s no draw, there’s no recent history,” a former Vols assistant coach told me. “Kids today don’t know Tee Martin was a national championship quarterback. They know Tee Martin, the coach. You know what all of these (recruits) see? Bad football. You’re not getting guys who will change the direction of your program with bad football, no matter how you sell it.”
Those players of years past made Fulmer a Hall of Fame coach. Those players helped the Vols roll through a 45-5 record in the late 1990s, including a national title and 2 SEC championships.
But the days of Tennessee getting who it wants – or even close to it – in the South have been gone for years. The Vols aren’t going into Louisiana and getting Manning, or Alabama and getting Martin, or Georgia and getting Jamal Lewis. Hell, they’re not beating Clemson or South Carolina for Shaun Ellis.
Fulmer and his staff capitalized on program regressions at Alabama, LSU and Georgia to land some of the best players in the history of the program. Tennessee hasn’t beaten Georgia or LSU for a legitimate impact recruit in more than a decade, and both Georgia and LSU have gone through coaching changes and turmoil.
Tennessee has beaten Florida once since Fulmer was pushed out after the 2008 season, and hasn’t landed a true difference-maker recruit from the state of Florida over that span.
The Vols’ recruiting footprint is the state of Tennessee — and fighting an uphill battle in the South. Or potentially using an illegal move (see: Pruitt firing).
This isn’t hyperbole, these are tangible, real reasons it hasn’t worked at Tennessee – and why it won’t moving forward. At least, not to the level to satisfy a rabid fan base.
This is the same fan base that 3 years ago ran off Greg Schiano, who looks like Vince Lombardi compared to the P.E. coach that is Pruitt.
The same university that allowed a former beloved coach (Fulmer) to torpedo what could’ve been a unique and intriguing hire (Mike Leach) that might have led to one of those one-off seasons, and then allowed the former beloved coach to make things worse.
Everyone is on the hook for this mess. From the university bigwigs who in 2009 signed off on Lane Kiffin – he wasn’t ready, and he absolutely was leaving should the USC job open up (of course it was opening up; the Trojans were staring at the NCAA sheriff) – to everyone who made every wrong move along the way since, to the Tennessee administration with hat in hand Monday afternoon proclaiming they will get it right this time.
It’s a tragic comedy of a 12-year run that has led to 4 football coaches and 2 interim coaches sludging through a 73-75 record. Just barely average.
This is what you are, Tennessee. Now and for the foreseeable future.
An average team with Alabama dreams. An average team that can’t recruit like it once did, and won’t ever recruit well enough to sustain elite success.
Tennessee will never be elite again.
2. The how and why
We’ve heard it over and over from every fan base, not just the loyal Vols fans.
Who says we can’t find our own version of Dabo Swinney?
Because there’s only one Dabo. Just like there’s one Saban and one Urban Meyer and after that, there’s a deep, deep chasm to the rest of college football coaching fiefdom.
Want to know who can take the current Tennessee situation – with its inherent geographical footprint recruiting issues and lack of elite high school players in the state of Tennessee – and win big?
Start with the aforementioned three coaches, and it ends there.
Saban will retire from Alabama when he’s good and ready. Meyer is in the NFL, and Swinney’s next move, more than likely, is the NFL.
Those are the only three coaches with the track record and trophy case – and charisma – to annually recruit top-5 recruiting classes to Tennessee and win a national championship.
The obvious question for the Tennessee administration: Where do you settle?
It begins and ends with hiring a coach who won’t run afoul of the NCAA. If you’re hiring to run one of the top seven SEC programs, it damn sure better be an experienced head coach.
If for some unknown reason you’ve decided to not hire an experienced head coach (see: falling down the same rabbit hole unless he’s the perfect candidate), it better be someone with a nearly flawless track record of working at major programs and someone with a spotless résumé on and off the field.
That list is about 2-3 assistant coaches long — and wouldn’t have included Pruitt in the last go-round.
Again, this is reality. It’s hard to hear if you’re a loyal Vols fan and you can’t understand why this proud program has looked so painfully dysfunctional since the last time it won an SEC championship. That was 1998.
Even the 2001 team, the group that won close games in a tough, 9/11 season, only needed to beat 3-loss LSU to play Nebraska in the BCS Championship Game. And lost.
LSU had two quarterbacks who couldn’t throw that day, and averaged 3.7 yards per play – and still won by 11 points.
That was the first of many gut-punches Vols fans have had to endure over the last two decades. There will be more.
3. The next move
They said all the right things at Monday’s press conference. They talked of winning the right way, getting things turned around and finding the right coach.
There was also this from UT chancellor Donde Plowman: “We are looking at some serious potential NCAA violations.”
One SEC source told me Monday night the number of violations could exceed 30, depending on mitigation.
So where does Tennessee turn? The Team Turmoil days of the last 12 years already have soured the job for some coaches, including the Power 5 coaches who turned down the job 3 years ago (Mike Gundy, Dave Doeren, Jeff Brohm).
Who wants to walk into a situation with a fan base that expects greatness despite the obvious player procurement drawbacks, and with potential NCAA probation?
Tennessee officials say they want to hire an athletic director first and let him or her hire the football coach. Longtime SEC assistant Kevin Steele, who was hired by Pruitt less than a week ago, is the interim coach – and may be the last man standing when the storm blows over.
Tennessee can’t hire Liberty coach Hugh Freeze – and natural choice because of his history and success in the SEC – after it fired Pruitt for NCAA violations. Freeze had NCAA violations at Ole Miss, and those problems and personal behavior issues forced him out.
If you’re Billy Napier (an assistant under both Saban and Swinney) and you’ve built a strong program at Louisiana, do you really want to be dropped into that mess – or is it more prudent to wait another year for another SEC job to open? Eight of the 14 SEC coaches who began the 2019 season have been fired.
Matt Campbell isn’t leaving Iowa State for Tennessee. Nor will Tom Allen leave Indiana.
The Vols, more than likely, will wind up offering the job to a Power 5 assistant coach, or a coach who can’t say no. A coach who goes from making a few hundred thousand coaching in the depths of the Group of 5 (Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell) to making a few million a year in the SEC.
It worked with Eliah Drinkwitz at Missouri. Maybe it works again in Knoxville.
4. The path to leadership
Too many athletic departments get too ingrained in the idea of hiring someone to run the department with close ties to the university.
Seriously, who cares?
Go hire the best person for the job and give them every opportunity to succeed — and everything they need to make the impact needed. In other words, stay out of the way.
It’s not that difficult.
Instead of constantly focusing on Alabama and Clemson and the Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney coaching trees to hire head coaches, why not focus on the foundation at those programs?
If Tennessee truly wanted to make a unique and daring move, it would hire 37-year-old Graham Neff as athletic director. The deputy athletic director at Clemson, Neff works under one of the most accomplished and respected ADs in college sports (Dan Radakovich).
Just how impressive has Neff been? Radakovich created the deputy job for him and has used Neff’s counsel on everything from coaching hires to facilities planning and fundraising.
One Power 5 AD told me Monday night that Neff, “is a rock star” and that he’ll run his own athletic department within the next year or two.
Why not a department at Tennessee that desperately needs new ideas from a fresh perspective?
5. The Weekly Five
The top five candidates for the Tennessee job (and one bonus):
1. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota: The dream candidate. Has everything Tennessee needs: sparkling track record and charisma, and a booming personality to attract recruits. But the dream candidate is also more than likely a pipedream. He’s happy in Minneapolis, and it’s a personality fit.
2. Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator: A critical factor in Clemson’s rise under Swinney, he has been waiting for the perfect job. This may not be it. He will be a star when he finally accepts a Power 5 job.
3. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina: Is it possible to parlay 1 winning season in 3 years at Coastal into a Power 5 job? It’s Tennessee, everyone. Anything is possible.
4. Josh Heupel, UCF: He has the Bob Stoops pedigree (no, Bob Stoops isn’t interested), and he’s 28-8 in 3 seasons at UCF.
5. Jeff Monken, Army: No, he won’t run the triple option – but his give no quarter attitude and history of producing smart, tough teams is exactly what this program needs.
Bonus: Bill O’Brien, former Houston Texans coach. He cleaned up a much larger mess at Penn State. The only question: How long would he stay before moving back to the NFL?
6. Your tape is your résumé
The deadline to apply for the NFL draft has arrived. An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Texas A&M DT Bobby Brown III.
“It’s a down year for interior guys on the defensive front, and that’s going to help him. He’s a big guy (6-4, 325 pounds), a load in the middle. He can get after the quarterback, and I love those interior guys that can give you a pass rush push. At the beginning of the season, he would’ve been a mid-round guy. But he’s intriguing, if for no other reason because of his size and athletic ability. He hasn’t done it consistently and probably should’ve stayed another season. But he’s one of those guys who saw what happened in this COVID season and wants no part of playing again for free. Can you blame him? If he shines in individual workouts, and interviews well, I could see him moving up into the lower second or early third. That size and athleticism will push a handful of teams to value him higher than they should.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll: Best prospects for 2022 NFL Draft (1 per school):
- Alabama: LB Christian Harris
- Texas A&M: C Luke Matthews
- Florida: DE/LB Brenton Cox
- Georgia: DE Nolan Smith
- LSU: CFB Derek Stingley Jr.
- Ole Miss: OT Nick Broeker
- Auburn: LB Owen Pappoe
- Missouri: CB Jarvis Ware
- Kentucky: DE Joshua Paschal
- Arkansas: WR De’Vion Warren
- Tennessee: S Trevon Flowers
- Mississippi State: OT Charles Cross
- South Carolina: S R.J. Roderick
- Vanderbilt: CB Allan George
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: A couple of weeks ago you wrote that Dan Mullen and Florida weren’t getting along. Can you update?
Jane: Mullen isn’t happy about having to fire two assistants connected to the program’s first NCAA probation in more than 30 years. The university isn’t happy about Mullen’s part in the NCAA probation, or his postgame behavior in three separate incidents (Texas A&M, Missouri, Oklahoma games). Bottom line: Mullen has no NFL options to move on, and the football results on the field (for now) are too difficult to ignore for the university. So they’ll move forward with him. But understand this: The university won’t put up with another NCAA issue and won’t choke down more behavior that damages its brand.
9. Numbers: 46
When Bryan Harsin took the job at Auburn, there were concerns about his knowledge of the SEC and recruiting in the South. Since his arrival, he has made 5 hires who have a combined 46 years of experience coaching in the SEC. The main hires – offensive coordinator Mike Bobo (15 years) and defensive coordinator Derek Mason (7 years) – are also critical to Auburn’s ability to recruit the Southeast.
10. Quote to note
From the termination letter of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman and AD Phil Fulmer to Jeremy Pruitt: “Your failures are likely to lead to significant penalties to the university and has jeopardized the eligibility of our student-athletes.”