Jeremy Pruitt’s most important decision isn’t about who will play left guard or strong safety in 2019. It’s about who will lead his offense next year.
Pruitt’s predecessor never handled similar situations well. Former UT coach Butch Jones always seemed to replace a bad coach with a worse coach. In the end, there weren’t many champions of anything on Jones’ coaching staff.
Now, Pruitt faces a similar challenge after Tyson Helton left as UT’s offensive coordinator to become Western Kentucky’s head coach. In case you didn’t watch the Vols last season, losing Helton might prove to be a blessing in disguise. This could be an opportunity for the Vols to upgrade their staff. In terms of football prowess, there is one name being bantered about that has been a lightning rod among UT fans, Hugh Freeze.
There’s no question that Freeze is a fantastic offensive coach. His Ole Miss’ offenses helped topple Alabama twice during his tenure in Oxford. Freeze helped turn Ole Miss into a real factor in the national football scene. That’s no easy feat. However, Freeze comes with more baggage than a world traveler.
Who can forget the embarrassing Laremy Tunsil press conference where he admitted to receiving money from coaches that led to the sanctions that Ole Miss and the NCAA levied on the football program? Who can forget the fact that Freeze seemingly had an escort service at every recruiting stop?
It’s worth noting that the latter was what got Freeze fired, not the NCAA violations. Ole Miss was willing to stand by Freeze amidst the many NCAA sanctions. Think about that. Ole Miss was willing to stick with a coach that had his program flirting with the death penalty – if that even exists anymore.
In my years of covering recruiting, I had never heard of a program having as many allegations of recruiting violations as Ole Miss. Some you know about. Most you don’t. If you’re an advocate for UT to hire Freeze, keep in mind that his program had no respect nor adherence for NCAA rules. None whatsoever. We all know how that turned out. Be careful about letting snakes in the house.
Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to hire Freeze as an analyst last season before the SEC nixed that idea. However, Freeze still helped install Alabama’s offensive philosophy that has taken the country by storm. Has Freeze served enough time in purgatory to be welcomed back into the SEC? Commissioner Greg Sankey will provide the answer to that. It wouldn’t seem as if Pruitt would have the pull to sway Sankey and the SEC. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to. The Vols have an ace up their sleeve.
By hiring Phillip Fulmer as athletic director, Tennessee has a man in charge that was a great recruiter for more than two decades and was never found guilty of serious violations. Fulmer has the clout that Pruitt is missing. Sankey had no reason to help Alabama. They are already in prime position. There was no reason to allow Freeze to enter the picture while Ole Miss was still serving penalties he helped cause. That would have been too risky. Had Freeze not changed after he was fired from Ole Miss, he could have disrupted the SEC’s gem program. That’s not the case in Knoxville.
Allowing Freeze to become Tennessee’s offensive coordinator has no risk for the SEC. UT is already bad. What could Freeze do to make it worse? In fact, Freeze could help one of the SEC’s premier programs become relevant again.
I’m neither advocating Freeze should be hired or eliminated because of his past. However, from a football standpoint, Freeze clearly makes the most sense. We’ll see if Fulmer, Pruitt and the SEC agree.