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Tennessee Head Football Coach Hot Board: 2021 Edition Version 1.0

Yes, we are doing this again.

Mississippi v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tennessee has fired Jeremy Pruitt after three seasons in Knoxville. He finishes with a 16-19 mark overall, coming off of a 3-7 season in 2020. Pruitt was unable to survive an internal investigation into his staff’s recruiting, creating an exit strategy for Tennessee.

The Volunteers will now hit the reset button again — both on the football program and at athletics director. Phillip Fulmer is also reportedly retiring and will allow his successor to hire the next football coach.

Obviously, Tennessee will have to hire the AD first, but here are the early options for Tennessee to take over the football program.

Hugh Freeze

Hiring Hugh Freeze coming off of a recruiting investigation? It’s so Tennessee that it just might work. Freeze now holds an 18-6 record after two seasons at Liberty, including a 10-1 mark in 2020. Of course, that’s not the entire story here. Freeze worked his magic at Ole Miss, beating Nick Saban and Alabama a couple of times. He guided Ole Miss to appearances in the Peach and Sugar Bowl, riding his high-flying offense and questionably strong recruiting.

In 2016, he was fired due to numerous recruiting violations. Is he ready for another chance at the highest level? Is Tennessee even in a position to make a hire this bold?

Judging from the presser that Chancellor Plowman had on Monday, the idea of Freeze in Knoxville seems like a massive stretch.

Gus Malzahn

A proven winner in the SEC? A guy that has routinely beaten Nick Saban? It’s not the flashiest hire, but Malzahn could bring some immediate stability to Knoxville.

Auburn fired Malzahn after eight seasons a couple of months ago. The veteran coach went 6-4 in 2020, but held a 68-35 overall record. That’s a clear upgrade for this program, as Brett described last month. He comes from an offensive background and could bring a shot of energy to a unit that has been lacking since Josh Dobbs walked out the door.

Lane Kiffin

Kiffin may fall into the category with Freeze, but there’s been plenty of chatter about Kiffin making a return appearance to Knoxville. It would be quite the reunion — the man that started Tennessee’s downfall coming back to drag them out of the fire.

Kiffin took the Ole Miss job last year and went 5-5, including a bowl win over Indiana. Would he bolt after just one season — the same thing he did to Tennessee after the 2009 season? He would bring offense and personality, making Tennessee football at least fun to watch again.

Doug Marrone

UPDATE: Marrone is reportedly being hired to coach the offensive line at Alabama.

Marrone has long been linked to Phillip Fulmer, so it remains to be seen if he would be a candidate with Fulmer out of the picture. The recently fired Jacksonville Jaguars head coach spent one season in Knoxville as an assistant back in 2001 under Fulmer. He then made the leap to the NFL, before landing the head coaching job at Syracuse in 2009.

Marrone was 25-25 during his time at Syracuse, ending on an 8-4 mark in 2012. He was then hired by the Bills for two seasons, before landing in Jacksonville.

He’s a guy that’s seen a little bit of everything in the football world, and is suddenly looking for work. John Brice of FootballScoop has already linked him to the opening.

Tom Herman

It wasn’t all that long ago that Tom Herman’s name was the hottest on the market. Herman made the jump from Houston to Texas, but failed to win big in Austin. Herman was fired earlier this month and flipped for Steve Sarkisian.

Herman wasn’t bad at Texas, finishing with a 32-18 record. He just didn’t meet the lofty expectations of the Longhorns’ program. Could he slide over to Knoxville and give it another go?

Jamey Chadwell

Chadwell is fresh off of a magical season at Coastal Carolina, guiding his program to an 11-1 season. He flipped Coastal from a 5-7 record in 2019, to a near undefeated season just one year later. Chadwell was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018 at Coastal before getting the promotion to head coach.

He’s a Tennessee native, coming from Caryville — just north of Knoxville. Chadwell attended ETSU, where he was a quarterback. The leap would be a massive one for Chadwell, and he very well may not want to jump to the power five under potentially heavy sanctions.

Billy Napier

Another young and upcoming coach is Napier, who is from Cookeville. The 41 year old coach is currently at Louisiana, where he’s piled up a 28-11 record over the last three seasons. Napier is coming off of a 10-1 season in 2020.

Again though, would a top-flight up-and-comer even entertain this job? Napier has proven to be picky, even reportedly turning down the Auburn job earlier this year.

Kevin Steele

Steele is currently on staff at Tennessee, supposedly hired by Jeremy Pruitt. He’s now reportedly the interim while the Volunteers figure out what they want to do. This hire was strange from the get-go, leading plenty to speculation that Steele could be the backup plan if Pruitt was fired following the investigation. Well, here we are.

Steele’s chances at landing the job for at least the 2021 season are likely less now with the news that Phillip Fulmer is stepping down. Steele was the runner up to Pruitt in 2017 — a search that was carried out (eventually) by Fulmer. This move doesn’t seem likely now, but keep the former Volunteer in the back of your mind. The penalties coming from this investigation could be large — and could make this job totally unattractive. If Tennessee essentially punts on this hiring cycle, they could call Steele’s name for an easy, cheap option.

Chris Low has already floated the possibility, for what it’s worth.