The updated 2017 Tennessee coaching search report card
As all Tennessee fans know, the 2017 coaching search was a dumpster fire of epic proportions. Two years later, I thought it would be fun to look back at the key coaching names from that search to see where they stand now.
Remember, those that don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
The white whale of all Tennessee coaching searches. Heck it’s possible that Gruden was a candidate at Tennessee when Bill Battle got the job in 1970 (and you don’t know for sure that he wasn’t!). Gruden was contacted by Tennessee in 2017, but it never went anywhere because Gruden didn’t want a college job. He wanted to return to the NFL and did so when he was re-hired by the Oakland Raiders the following January. After a brutal 4-12 season in 2018, Gruden’s Raiders are in the AFC playoff hunt at 6-6.
The Mississippi State head coach was John Currie’s top choice. Many Tennessee fans liked the idea, too. But Currie dragged his feet on an official interview. In that time, Florida was turned down by UCF’s Scott Frost and former Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The Gators then turned to their former assistant coach, and Mullen jumped at the chance to return to Gainesville. Had Currie been more decisive and secured Mullen’s services shortly after firing Butch Jones, Mullen might be Tennessee’s head coach today. Over the past 2 years Florida has gone 21-5 with a top 10 finish in 2018 and what is likely another top 10 finish this season.
This is that name will always be remembered the most in that 2017 coaching search. Currie had him (mostly) signed, sealed and delivered, until a massive Vols fan protest caused the university to back away. A year later Schiano resigned as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator to take a similar job on Bill Belichick’s staff at New England, but quit less than 2 months later. Last week, he accepted an offer to return to Rutgers as its head coach.
The well respected former Tennessee assistant nearly became the Vols’ head coach after Lane Kiffin resigned in 2010, but a deal couldn’t be reached with athletics director Mike Hamilton. In 2017, Currie contacted Cutcliffe to see if he might be interested in returning to Knoxville and was turned down. Cutcliffe has been the head coach at Duke since 2009 and has done a terrific job at a school where it’s really difficult to win. Since 2012, the Blue Devils have gone 51-39 with a division title and 3 bowl victories. They have taken a step back the past 2 years, finishing a combined 13-12.
It seems like every Tennessee coaching search involves Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. He used Tennessee to get a raise in 2012 and the same exact thing happened in 2017. Gundy and Currie met in Dallas, and Gundy was reportedly offered a contract worth $7 million per year. But Gundy, who is an Oklahoma State alum and has spent most of his adult life in Stillwater, was never leaving that job. Gundy picked up a $675,000 salary bump. In 2018, Gundy’s Cowboys went 7-6 and they are 8-4 this year and heading to another bowl.
The Purdue head coach popped up on a lot of wish lists during that coaching cycle. Brohm was contacted by Tennessee after the Schiano fiasco, and there were media reports that Brohm accepted the job. However, that was not the case. Brohm chose to stay at Purdue. Since then the bloom has fallen. Purdue is 10-15 the past 2 seasons.
While it doesn’t appear that the Iowa State head coach was ever a serious contender for the Tennessee job, his was a hot name at the end of the 2017 season. The Cyclones upset 2 top 5 opponents that year (Oklahoma, TCU). But he had a buyout of $9 million. UT’s athletics department wasn’t in position to pay that for a coach like Campbell. Iowa State is still good under Campbell. The Cyclones have gone a combined 15-10 the past 2 seasons.
The NC State head coach was offered the Tennessee job, and Vols fans protested that move as well. Doeren’s Wolfpack had gone 34-30 the previous 5 seasons, with a woeful 15-25 mark in the ACC. Currie flew to Raleigh, interviewed Doeren and expected him to take the job. Doeren might have gotten spooked by the Vols fan backlash, which wasn’t at Schiano levels but was still loud. Or he might have just been using Tennessee to get a raise. If so, it worked. He got a contract extension worth $15 million over 5 years. The Wolfpack went 9-4 in 2018 but limped to a 4-8 finish this season, punctuated by a blowout loss at home to rival UNC.
With the coaching search now in complete free fall, Currie called a Hail Mary, and flew from Raleigh to California to interview the Washington State coach. Leach gave Currie every indication he was taking the Tennessee job. This was seen as a win by most Tennessee fans. Leach’s eccentric nature, along with his up-tempo offensive style would have been very popular in Knoxville. But when Currie returned to Tennessee the morning after interviewing Leach, he was fired by UT chancellor Beverly Davenport, and the Leach pursuit ended immediately. Leach’s Cougars won a school-record 11 games in 2018, and ended it ranked 10th in the nation. They weren’t as good this season, finishing 6-6, but they’re still heading to a bowl for the 5th consecutive year.
After Currie’s firing, Phillip Fulmer took over as AD and ran the coaching search, interviewing the Auburn defensive coordinator. Steele had Tennessee ties as a former player and assistant coach. However, his head coaching résumé was a mess, going 9-36 at Baylor from 1999-2002, including a 1-31 in Big 12 play. Those numbers would have made it tough for Fulmer to justify the hire. Steele is still the DC at Auburn and had 3 of his players taken in the 2019 NFL Draft with more to follow this April.
Fulmer also interviewed the Georgia defensive coordinator during this coaching search. Tucker, who helped turn Georgia into a championship-level defense, was going to get a head coaching job eventually and was the runner-up for the Tennessee job. In 2019 he became Colorado’s head coach. His Buffaloes went 5-7 this season.
The 2017 coaching search finally ended with Fulmer’s hiring of Pruitt, the Alabama defensive coordinator. This was his first head coaching job. Pruitt’s Vols upset nationally ranked Auburn and Kentucky in 2018, but they ran out of steam after that and finished 5-7. This season the team got off to a dreadful 1-4 start, including an embarrassing loss to Georgia State. But the Vols appear to be heading in the right direction, winning 6 of their past 7 to end the 2019 season, and earning their 1st bowl game berth since 2016.