Naming names: Why Tennessee must choose among these 3 candidates for its next head coach
In this crazy world, one thing is certain …
No one does a coaching search like Tennessee.
With the memories of the 2017 debacle still prominent, Tennessee is about to embark on yet another coaching search, its 5th since November 2008.
What will Tennessee be looking for in Jeremy Pruitt’s replacement?
Keep in mind that the following is only one man’s opinion … even though I know mine is correct.
Let’s get it started.
The next head coach will not be hired until a new athletics director is brought in, which leads me to believe that interim head coach Kevin Steele will be in charge this season. This is not a bad situation for Tennessee, because it would prove that it has learned its lesson from 11 years ago. That’s when Lane Kiffin unexpectedly bolted for Southern Cal. Instead of giving the job to interim head coach Kippy Brown for the 2010 season, Tennessee panicked and hired Derek Dooley, which turned into a de facto death penalty.
Steele has the inside track to the job. All he has to do is figure out how to make this team a winner and yes, certainly that is a tall order. At 62, he’s not the long term answer. But considering that he’s likely going to be there for at least the next 8 months, he has to be in the conversation. Considering Tennessee’s recent hires, it could and has done worse than a guy with 40 years of coaching experience.
If it isn’t Steele after this upcoming season (and it probably won’t be), Tennessee needs to poach a proven Power 5 head coach. It’s hard to believe, but Tennessee hasn’t hired someone with Power 5 conference-type experience as a head coach since Johnny Majors came marching home again in 1977. Phillip Fulmer was a Tennessee assistant promoted from within. Kiffin had never been a college head coach. Dooley was at Louisiana Tech. Butch Jones was at Cincinnati. Jeremy Pruitt had never been a head coach at any level.
The Tennessee job has turned into one in which coaches are hired and learn as they go. The Vols need to avoid that pitfall. This means that guys like Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Charlotte’s Will Healy, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold and Louisiana’s Billy Napier shouldn’t be at the top of their wish list. Those names have already been tossed into the #VolTwitter echo chamber, in part because of their Tennessee ties. Chadwell has the deepest connections. He played at nearby Anderson County (TN) High School and played his college ball at East Tennessee State University. He wants the job desperately.
But Tennessee has rolled the dice so many times the past 13 years, and it keeps coming up snake eyes. This time UT must find a coach who has proven he can succeed on a big stage.
That leads us to guys like Liberty’s Hugh Freeze and (sigh) Ole Miss’s Lane Kiffin. Make no mistake. Both can win games. They play an exciting style of football. They’d get Tennessee a ton of attention. Freeze specifically has won at the SEC level, beating Alabama twice at Ole Miss.
But if you watched UT Chancellor Donde Plowman during the press conference when they announced Pruitt’s firing, you didn’t get a feeling that Tennessee will be willing to go down that road.
“We want to win here and we want to win with integrity,” Plowman said. “And we want to look for coaches with that same philosophy, and I’m very optimistic that there are many of them out there. That will be important criteria.”
There’s no way that Tennessee can say that they are firing Jeremy Pruitt due to NCAA violations and then hire Hugh Freeze or Lane Kiffin. No chance at all.
Considering all of those factors, I think Tennessee would be wise to go after guys like former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, former Texas coach Tom Herman and former Penn State/Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, who is expected to become Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
Malzahn and Herman were recently fired and are enjoying the buyout life. But that will get boring fairly quickly. If they are still available, they’ll likely be very interested in getting back in the game come 2022. Malzahn went 68-35 with an SEC title and 3 wins over Nick Saban in 8 seasons at Auburn. Herman went 32-18 in 4 years at Texas, with 4 bowl game victories. They’ve both proven they can succeed under the bright lights.
O’Brien most recently spent 7 years as the Houston Texans coach, winning 4 division titles. But I look at his work at Penn State as the biggest reason Tennessee should give him a serious look. O’Brien took over a Penn State program in 2012 that was fresh off the biggest scandal in the history of collegiate athletics. He kept that program together and led them to a 15-9 record in his 2 seasons.
We don’t know what NCAA penalties Tennessee will be facing, but having O’Brien in place would help them get through the dark times to come.
It’ll be interesting to see where Tennessee goes from here, but if they can get Malzahn, Herman or O’Brien, they will finally have a quality, established coach leading the program.