Sorry, Tennessee fans: Kevin Steele is your most likely option for 2021 (and maybe beyond)
Close your eyes, Tennessee fans.
No, I’m not asking you to go into a coma for the rest of 2021. As rough as this year has been and figures to be on Rocky Top, football is still better than no football. I think.
But seriously, close your eyes, Tennessee fans.
It’s SEC Media Days. The backdrop with Tennessee logos is set, and the dual Vols helmets sitting atop the podium are ready to roll. Keep those eyes closed.
Tell me this. Who’s the coach stepping up to the podium rocking a Volunteer orange tie? We know it’s obviously not Jeremy Pruitt. Is it Billy Napier? Probably not. Is it Jamey Chadwell? Nope. Is it Hugh Freeze?
Hold on. It’s becoming clearer. Ah, that’s not Freeze.
So who is it? Lane?! Is that you?!?!?!?
Um, nope. It’s Kevin Steele.
That’s 2021 for Tennessee, wherein even the fantasies are an anticlimactic reality. Yes, the guy who currently holds the interim head coaching title is the most likely person to be at SEC Media Days in 2021. And when you think about it, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Steele running the show for the Vols beyond this strange season in Knoxville.
Don’t consider that a ringing endorsement of Steele, who is a fantastic defensive mind but is totally unproven as a head coach. That’s also not a prediction that Steele is going to follow in the footsteps of Ed Orgeron, who shed the interim tag and then proceeded to lead LSU to historic heights in 2019.
Steele’s situation is more similar to a different former Ole Miss coach. That is, Matt Luke.
Remember when Hugh Freeze’s bizarre exit at Ole Miss went down? While the escort service debacle stole the headlines, more relevant for replacing Freeze was the fact that the program was about to get hammered by an NCAA investigation. A whopping 15 Level I violations didn’t exactly scream “hey, come be the next coach in Oxford!” It instead screamed, “hey, let’s keep it in house and just try to stop the bleeding.”
That’s going to be the goal with Steele. At least that’s what it seems like.
According to Phillip Fulmer, his successor as athletic director will make the decision on the next head coach. There’s no timetable for that. Just because Tennessee hires a new athletic director doesn’t mean it’s about to embark on a thorough search to find the next head coach.
Besides, that’s not exactly the best sell to a head coaching candidate. Tennessee is actively trying to wiggle its way out of an 8-figure buyout to a coach who got fired after 3 seasons and is currently in the midst of what’s shaping up to be quite the legal battle. You’re also talking about the unknown penalty the Vols will face once the NCAA steps in and conducts its own investigation. If Level I violations were found from an internal investigation, who knows what the NCAA will uncover.
While it remains to be seen what that punishment will look like, I’d tend to think that if the NCAA got any sort of whiff that the Vols were hoping to beat the system to get out of paying Pruitt’s buyout, there would be more than a slap on the wrist. The last thing the NCAA wants with what little power it has left in college football is for programs to blatantly make a mockery of the system in an effort to avoid an 8-figure payday for a failing head coach.
There’s also the well-documented potential hurdle of bringing Freeze on board in the midst of this ugly national story when he’s the same guy who got a 1-year show cause and netted Ole Miss a multi-year bowl ban for his Level I recruiting violations. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey might’ve been OK with Freeze returning to the SEC under normal circumstances in 2020, but these aren’t normal circumstances. Freeze reportedly was blocked from coordinator positions in the SEC while Ole Miss served its bowl ban. It wouldn’t be a shock if Sankey applied that logic to Tennessee in the midst of its recruiting scandal.
Might Sankey tell Tennessee to maybe wait a year on hiring Freeze? Sure. If Freeze really does covet the Tennessee job as has been speculated, that opportunity should still be there in the next coaching cycle. It’s late January. He’s not going anywhere.
If that’s the case, why would it make sense to go out and bring in someone else? What now makes sense was the move to hire Steele. At a time when personnel decisions were on hold with the pending investigation, Steele was hired … and then he accepted his second SEC interim gig within a matter of a couple of weeks. You can’t tell me that move was made without knowing what was about to see the light of day with Pruitt.
Now of course, there’s always the chance that Tennessee goes totally rogue and hires someone with mostly NFL ties like Bill O’Brien or Peyton Manning’s guy, Adam Gase.
Close your eyes again, Tennessee fans. Is this the face you think will see at SEC Media Days?
Tennessee Volunteer head coach Adam Gase pic.twitter.com/aM0czME6eh
— Christian D’Andrea, sim ruiner (@TrainIsland) January 18, 2021
If that’s the face you see when you close your eyes, say goodbye to a restful night of sleep.
Would Tennessee fans sleep easy if Steele were at the controls for a year or so? Maybe, maybe not. Steele at least showed he can crank out top-25 defenses in the SEC. It would’ve been weird for Auburn to pay a $21 million buyout so that it could promote the assistant, but that doesn’t mean Tennessee fans should be sticking their noses up at Steele. Not now.
We know that Steele is on board. Even if they somehow announced Tennessee’s NCAA penalties tomorrow — they won’t — we still don’t know that one of those candidates would sign up to deal with the uphill climb of building a roster and coaching with those limitations.
What’s more likely is this thing will drag on. The NCAA is known for a lot of things. Being prompt isn’t one of them.
When Ole Miss received its notice of allegations in June 2017, it took nearly 5 months to get its punishment. If Tennessee doesn’t learn of its fate for another 5 months, that would put us a few weeks from SEC Media Days. That’s not exactly when you conduct a national coaching search, either.
What feels all but inevitable right now is that Tennessee takes a few haymakers to the jugular in 2021. That means more significant losses to the roster. That means losing recruiting battles. That means sticking with an interim coach in hopes that he has a clue what he’s doing to prevent an even bigger collapse.
Luke probably didn’t get enough credit for holding Ole Miss together during those lean post-Freeze years. Steele can do the same for Tennessee.
Even if that isn’t something Vols fans want to see when they close their eyes.