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Tennessee Athletics is at a crossroads. This statement could be applied to recent football coaching searches in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Or during a coaching-search-turned-AD-search-turned-coaching-search again in 2017. Or during an ill advised cookout that landed Bruce Pearl in NCAA jail in 2011.
You get the picture.
Tennessee has been at many crossroads since Phillip Fulmer was forced to resign as head football coach in 2008 at the end of a second losing season in four years. So Phillip Fulmer retiring as AD after a “will they or won’t they?” Jeremy Pruitt employment dance feels like the logical end to an illogical chapter of Tennessee Football.
So here Tennessee sits. No AD. No head coach. And no idea what the NCAA is about to do with them.
If Vols Football looks like it’s been managed by a drunk guy throwing darts up against a “board of decisions” dartboard ever since Doug Dickey retired in 2003, rest assured the NCAA and their decision makers mastered that game of drunken dartboard decision making years before. And that’s where the Tennessee investigation and punishment factors in to what type of governing body they want to be moving forward.
Tennessee Athletics is no saint. And I’m willing to bet your (insert favorite team that cares deeply about winning in insert sport here) isn’t a saint either. But what Tennessee was in this process was accountable. And maybe even recklessly so. They self-investigated their own program, found multiple (possible) Level II or Level I violations and proceeded to fire nine people: Head coach Jeremy Pruitt, assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four recruiting staffers, 1\one director of personnel and one analyst.
Meanwhile, LSU continues to employ a basketball coach caught on FBI wiretap discussing a “strong ass offer” made to a recruit. This is representative of the two schools of thought on how to deal with the NCAA:
1) The middle finger approach (See: LSU) or
2) The “fall on the sword” approach: (See: Tennessee).
And this is not a referendum on which is the smarter approach. This is a question of how the NCAA should handle punishments and what message they send when doing so. If Tennessee self investigates, self reports, allows NCAA investigators on Zoom calls during interviews with coaches AND fires nine people involved with cause and still gets a punishment anywhere close to that of the programs taking the middle finger approach, what is the point of ever being transparent? Tennessee would have been better off saying nothing and daring the NCAA to do something.
But instead Tennessee and Chancellor Donde Plowman went in the extreme opposite direction in today’s press conference. At one point, I thought she was going to faint describing how many people were involved and that high end recruits (gasp!) may have received benefits above and beyond what the NCAA deems acceptable on recruiting visits. Time will tell which approach works best. But the NCAA would be wise to look more favorably upon the programs at least acting like they want to cooperate with them and do the right thing.
Now on to Tennessee’s crossroads. They announced today that a search will start immediately for the next Athletic Director, and that AD will then begin a search for the next head football coach. I will lay out their (realistic) possible courses of action in four categories. All of these scenarios take place after Tennessee hires their next AD.
- Go Big Or Go Home:
Because I see no way they would bring in Hugh Freeze or Lane Kiffin with the mist of an NCAA cloud dampening their brow, Tennessee’s top wish list should include Matt Campbell or Luke Fickell. Vols fans won’t do any backflips over hiring another Cincinnati coach after the Butch Jones cliché energy bus rolled through Knoxville, but both Fickel and Campbell are very different. Both are proven head coaches who have won in places with fewer resources than Tennessee and have done so by doing more with less. This would endear them and this program to Vols fans cynical over recruiting rankings, considering their team routinely underperforms based off of their roster’s lofty star projections. I doubt either would leave their respective jobs for Tennessee right now, but both are absolutely worth a shot.
- The Attainables
There are quality head football coaches who want this job. Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell is at the top of my list of attainable coaches. He has strong East Tennessee ties, having grown up just north of Knoxville, and runs an innovative offense that could excite Vols fans. The other name in this group is Billy Napier of Louisiana. His name pops up on every major opening in the south. It’s not clear how badly he wants to move on to a bigger job in a better conference, but it’s hard to believe a Tennessee opportunity wouldn’t get his attention.
- The First Timers Club
Should Tennessee hire a first-time head coach again? Should Head Football Coach at the University of Tennessee be a “learn on the job” type position? The answer is no. We just saw how that worked out for the Vols with this last hire. But IF they decide to go that route, they should pick up the phone and call Patriots ILB Coach Jerod Mayo and see if he is interested in leading his alma mater. If he’s good enough for Bill Belichick to create a position for him and to get a HC interview with the Eagles, is he good enough for Tennessee? That’s for the new AD to decide, but it’s worth a look. Clemson OC Tony Elliott and a few other would be/first time head coaches are worthy of mention in this category, but I don’t think you can go that route unless you want to hire an alumnus with true star potential (Mayo).
- The Low Ceiling-High Floor guys
I’m not just going to ignore the fact that a coach who just got fired for going 68-35 while never suffering a losing record in the toughest division in college football and went 3-5 against Alabama and Nick Saban is available. I’m also not going to ignore the fact that it might be awkward in the first coaches meeting when Gus Malzahn bumps into Kevin Steele. Either way, Gus feels like a guy who could come in and immediately serve as an upgrade and get Tennessee on the path to respectability and at least competing with the big boys in short order. I think Gus Malzahn could be Tennessee’s “Football Rick Barnes.” Tom Herman, who got fired after going 32-18 and 4-0 in bowls in 4 seasons at Texas, also belongs in this group.
- The Prudent (Boring) Decision
Tennessee could hire an AD and decide to hold that interim title on Kevin Steele for all of 2021. If he can keep the roster intact and improve the team in the win department, great. If the team is bad (which is expected anyway), then your new AD can hire the candidate of his or her choosing during a much more normal hiring cycle at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Steele is an alum who has coached all over the SEC and even served as a head coach (albeit an unsuccessful one) at Baylor. He is also a highly respected defensive coordinator and recruiter who is well liked by everyone who knows him. The third part of that previous sentence cannot be used to describe Tennessee’s previous head coach. It’s the least sexy decision Tennessee could make, but it may be the right one.
Given Tennessee Football’s last decade and a half, one thing is for sure: It won’t be boring.