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Tennessee finds itself with an AD and coaching vacancy in mid-January, which serves as further proof that when the Vols do something, they go BIG. (I have spared you a Big Mac joke in this space. You’re welcome.) Step 1 is hiring a new Athletics Director to replace Phillip Fulmer, who announced his retirement on Monday. Step 2 is that AD to be named later hiring his or her head coach. This is the right way to go about this process, but in the interest of excitement, I’m skipping right past listing a collection of guys in suits (and women in pantsuits) with ties to Tennessee who could do a great job as Athletic Director and diving right in to my Top 10 wish list for next head football coach at Tennessee.
I’m listing names of coaches I believe would either strongly consider the job or outright accept it if given an offer. I’m not writing fan fiction for Vols fans filled with visions of Bob Stoops coming out of retirement or Peyton Manning finally deciding to say goodbye to his lucrative endorsement deals and hello to “insta” DM’ing a 3-star defensive lineman from Valdosta, GA. And as much as I love Matt Campbell and believe he would crush it at Tennessee, I don’t think he is leaving Iowa State for any job other than Michigan, THE Ohio State or THE NFL. Here are my top 10 for the Tennessee job, complete with my opening pitch if I was Tennessee AD.
- Luke Fickell
“Hey Coach. Wanna come run the state of Tennessee with your best bud, Mike Vrabel?”
Luke Fickell can flat out coach ball. He’s won 31 games in his last 3 seasons at Cincinnati and just came closer to beating Georgia than Jeremy Pruitt ever dreamed of in his time in Knoxville. And not that it would be the biggest factor in his decision, but it would be pretty cool for a couple of Ohio guys and great friends to lead the two most high profile football teams in Tennessee, the Titans and the Vols. The biggest question surrounding Fickell is his ability to recruit in the SEC. He has never coached outside of Ohio. But, as we’ve seen at Tennessee, good recruiting doesn’t always equal wins. Wouldn’t it be nice for Vols fans to see someone do more with less?
- Jamey Chadwell
“It’s time to come home and raise your son in a place that honors his namesake.”
That’s right. Jamey Chadwell’s son is named Jameson Heath after #21 himself, Heath Shuler. Let me repeat. The Home Depot College Football Coach of the Year named his son after every Vols fan’s favorite former Congressman from western North Carolina. When the creators of Friday Night Lights cast Brad Leland as Buddy Garrity, it was too good to be true. Brad Leland IS Buddy Garrity. Can you picture a more perfect Texas High School Football booster than Brad Leland as Buddy Garrity? Now go watch an interview with Jamey Chadwell and tell me that guy isn’t the perfect head football coach for the University of Tennessee. He grew up on a farm in Anderson County just north of Knoxville, so this may honestly be his dream job. And speaking of “doing more with less,” that’s exactly what his creative offensive scheme accomplishes. The more I read about Chadwell, the more I like him. The biggest downside is that he has yet to coach at the Power Five level in any capacity. But Tennessee hiring their own Buddy Garrity could be too good to pass up.
- Gus Malzahn
“You ready to show Auburn they just made a big mistake?”
Gus makes a lot of sense at Tennessee. He would make more sense if Tennessee’s current interim head coach, Kevin Steele, and a bunch of influential boosters didn’t just allegedly mount a coup to unseat him at Auburn. If that part of the equation can be smoothed over, then a coach who went 68-35 in the SEC West and beat Nick Saban three times is a great option.
- Tom Herman
“There would be no Texas without Tennessee. It’s time we reminded them of this fact.”
Remember when Tom Herman was on track to be the next Urban Meyer? It seems like a lifetime ago, but that was the thought around the former Meyer assistant who led Houston to a 22-4 record over two seasons. The lesson here is that it’s hard to be Urban Meyer. Another lesson is that it’s hard to appease the powers that be at Texas. Herman was unceremoniously fired after going a respectable 32-18 and 4-0 in bowl games in his 4 seasons with the Longhorns. Tennessee already has a good defensive coaching structure in place with Kevin Steele. If you combine the offensive acumen of Herman with another Texan (Texas QB of the Year and incoming freshman Kaidon Salter), you could have something special.
- Billy Napier
“You’ve flirted with the big time long enough. It’s time to make the move.”
Considering Napier turned down Mississippi State last year and South Carolina and Auburn this year (reportedly), this may be a difficult pull for Tennessee. The Louisiana coach is 28-11 in Lafayette and served on staffs at both Clemson and Alabama. The 41-year-old was born in Cookeville, TN and is the son of a high school head coach. You shouldn’t rule out a hire based on someone sharing a similar trait with the previous failed head coach, but Tennessee fans probably aren’t overly excited about the son of a high school football coach who once worked for Nick Saban. Still, Napier makes a lot of sense, and he is not Jeremy Pruitt.
- Will Healy
“You have the energy we need right now.”
This Tennessee rebuild may not be for the faint of heart, considering that roster defections and NCAA penalties seem likely. But Tennessee is still a really good job with great resources and a passionate and active fanbase. Couple all of those things with a state that is only growing in population and in the number of SEC-level football players, and it’s a job where you can win a national championship. No one knows this better than Chattanooga native, Will Healy. The one possible downside is his lack of big-time seasoning. He did a remarkable job turning around a dreadful Austin Peay program and has injected his own brand of youthful energy to a Charlotte program that was in need of some juice. He is also 9-10 after only two seasons. On the high end, Healy is the next Dabo Swinney. On the low end, he is Tennessee’s next cliché-uttering Butch Jones iteration. I think he is somewhere in the middle. But the middle could be really good for Tennessee right about now.
- Bill O’Brien
“Time for Penn State Bill to make a comeback.”
Save your “this guy traded away Nuke Hopkins and destroyed the Texans” tweets. Bill O’Brien makes sense for Tennessee because he understands NCAA limitations and can navigate them because he did exactly that while performing a minor miracle in his time at Penn State. O’Brien took over in the wake of the Sandusky mess and did better than anyone could have reasonably expected. He would need a good infrastructure of recruiters and player personnel employees around him, but Bill O’Brien can coach and Tennessee could do much worse than the guy who helped save Penn State football.
- Joe Brady
“You are 31. We can add ‘SEC coach’ to your resume.”
I get it. Brady will have NFL head coaching opportunities in the near future. But last I checked, he is still the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, so head coach at Tennessee would be a promotion for him. He has been on the fast track to a big-time head coaching position throughout his career. Might as well accelerate it even more. I would hesitate to hire a first time head coach if I’m Tennessee, but if they decide to go that route, Brady tops my list.
- Jerod Mayo
“We need someone who has the patience to build and be here for 10+ years.”
Jerod Mayo was so highly thought of by Bill Belichick that he created a coaching position for him. He just interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles head coaching job. He also happens to be a former Tennessee linebacker. The downside is obvious. He is only five years removed from playing in the NFL and has never even served as a coordinator. The upside is also obvious. It’s a chance for Tennessee to identify a young coaching talent who also happens to be an alum of the school and could become a great head coach in short order. Jason Witten’s name has been floated in the media, and while I love Witten, I much prefer Mayo, considering he has some coaching experience. Tennessee has also been at its best when it has stability at the head coach spot (See: Neyland, Majors, Fulmer). Mayo could provide that long-term.
- Kevin Steele
“Stabilize this thing and overachieve and you can have the job full-time.”
This is the plan that could cause Tennessee fans to go into a state of apathy never before seen from Big Orange faithful, but it’s also a solid plan. Allow Tennessee alum Kevin Steele to stabilize the roster and the program this offseason and give him a shot to lead Tennessee in 2021. If Tennessee surprises everyone and is improved on the field, he should have a chance at the head job. If they are as bad as expected, you make a move at the end of the season and give your new AD a chance to hire his or her coach in a more normal coaching cycle. It’s not the sexiest decision, but it may end up being the right one.
Oh look. I made it through an entire Tennessee coaching column without mentioning Hugh Freeze or McDonald’s. Again, you’re welcome.