Another year, another head coaching search for Tennessee football. Break out the hot boards, scour the forums, start betting money with your friends...it’s all fair game when the Volunteers’ head coach position comes open. Which seems to be happening a lot more lately.
Instead of reading tea leaves and following up on various sources, this article is going to take a broader look at the situation. We’re not going to discuss all the candidates—Terry Lambert has you covered there—but instead, we’re breaking down the perfect head coach for Tennessee football in the post-COVID world.
A coach doesn’t need all four of these to succeed. But a good candidate, who both fans and administrators approve of, who would be set up to succeed, will satisfy at least two of these conditions.
#1 - Proven Results at Power-5 Level
This is without a doubt the biggest request of the list. Mainly because, let’s be honest, there’s really not that many coaches out there with this qualification. Building on that, there’s not many coaches out there who would willingly leave their current situation in order to come to Tennessee—a program that has struggled to maintain competitiveness in the toughest conference of college football.
But Tennessee is not asking for a miracle worker here. They’re not asking for Nick Saban. They’re asking for a coach that has at least proven formidable against conference opponents, and held serve against the best teams in his conference. If his team was one of the best in the conference, even better.
National pundits love to act like Tennessee coaches get fired for losing to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. In reality, Tennessee just doesn’t like losing to Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Kentucky. After all, Tennessee didn’t fire Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt after 8-4 type years. They fired them after sub .500 seasons. That just shouldn’t be happening at a place with the resources that Tennessee has. If it does, it should be an exception to the rule, not the average result.
In case pundits forgot, Butch Jones had three seasons of .500 or under .500 results. Only two seasons resulted in more wins than losses in the regular season.
So who qualifies under this essential stipulation? I actually think Tennessee has some decent options.
First and foremost, my top selection: Gus Malzahn. While he still has questions about his ability to take the next step, his Auburn teams were never abjectly terrible.
Malzahn went 39-27 against SEC competition, and he was able to knock off Alabama more times than any coach in the nation. His record against Georgia is discouraging (2-7), but Malzahn had very few embarrassing losses on the level of what Tennessee has experienced over the past four years. Add in the 9 years of experience and never missing a bowl game, and I think Malzahn represents the most proven winner you can find on the coaching market. He might be just what Tennessee needs to get back to prominence. His quick turnaround at Auburn also provides exciting potential.
One popular name floating around is Hugh Freeze. Leaving aside the off-the-field indiscretions, Freeze benefits from revisionist history of sorts. His records at Ole Miss were often inflated by cupcake games in a major way. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard to win in the SEC when you have to coach at Ole Miss. But beyond some stunning upsets of Alabama, Freeze only had two years of good results, with the other years being much less impressive. Still, he did go toe-to-toe with heavyweights of the conference, and his recent results at Liberty suggests his ability to coach offense is unquestionable.
For a more off-the-wall recommendation, I would look at Mark Stoops at Kentucky. Stoops has the Wildcats punching above their weight in plenty of matchups, and routinely beating who they’re supposed to beat. He is not my first choice, but I think he is a better option than what some people might first think. You can even argue he’s less risky than someone like Freeze.
#2 - Dedicated to College Coaching
My thought on this: If you’re Tennessee right now, you don’t want a coach who is going to be constantly looking for the “next best thing”. As we have seen with other programs, if you’re always looking to the NFL as the next destination, it becomes very easy to get negatively recruited against. It also makes players wonder how committed you are to the program.
Realistically, I don’t see a coach leaving Tennessee for one of the bigger programs in college football. Mostly because those bigger programs are already set at head coach.
This likely rules out head coaches who have interviewed with NFL teams before, as well as guys whose main coaching careers have come in the professional leagues. That being said, I don’t think it actually removes someone like Bill O’Brien, who had such a disastrous tenure at Houston that he likely won’t get hired as head coach by an NFL team for at least another 6-7 years (unless nepotism strikes again).
This is a factor that is much more reliant on the interviewing process. This relies on the teams and administrators knowing who to talk to and getting the full story about what certain coaches are looking for. It’s also a fluid situation that may change if an NFL team comes calling. You just have to do enough work on the front end to feel confident in who you hire.
#3 - Move On From “Bully Ball”
You can call it superficial, but if you want to impress the top recruits, your team should probably look fun to play for. Someone like Jim Chaney—who concocted a vanilla offense that still couldn’t produce—is the literal antithesis to what you should be aiming for. “Bully Ball” works if you have good coaching for the style, but Tennessee evidently did not, and it made games miserable to watch.
Look at the top-25 in college football for the past few years. Count on your hand how many teams still run what most would call a “Bully Ball” system: Slow tempo, run-focused, dominating possession time, geared towards low scoring affairs. They are vastly outnumbered by up-tempo, spread offenses that focus on maximizing their scoring opportunities. Heck, the “spread” designation is very broad, but it’s still not including a team like Tennessee.
It’s time for Tennessee to move in to the new era of college football. They could actually use all the talented receivers and running backs they have acquired in recent years. Winning should always come first, but we know for a fact that the way to win big in college football right now is adjusting to the times and moving on from “traditional” offenses.
#4 - Keep A Low Profile (At First)
Maybe we’re just a bit shellshocked from everything that has happened. But after thinking about what Tennessee has endured over the past four years, man it would feel nice to just stay out of the spotlight for a couple seasons. Worst year in program history, followed up by a mini-revolution that resulted in an athletic director getting fired, followed by Pruitt and Fulmer’s hiring, followed by the most embarrassing loss in program history, followed by a whiplash of expectations in 2019 and 2020.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping a low profile for the first couple seasons while you build your program. If you have enough on field success that you catch everyone’s attention early, that’s a different story. For now, I think we all want Tennessee to just chill out after hiring both a new AD and a new head coach.
A Big Caveat
Before we end, it needs to be recognized that coaching hires are a lot more of a crapshoot than anyone wants to admit. Sometimes good coaches still fail. Sometimes the match is perfect, but the results don’t show it.
Think of a school like Michigan. They hired program legend Jim Harbaugh from the NFL, less than 2 years after he went to the NFC Championship game. Harbaugh’s college coaching experience boasted a tremendous turnaround at Stanford, culminating in a Top-5 ranking before he left. That included developing Andrew Luck into one of the most sought after draft prospects in history.
It sure looked good at the beginning. The Wolverines went 20-6 in their first two years and were very close to a playoff appearance. Since then, they have been on a largely downward trajectory, thanks to Harbaugh’s inability to develop a quarterback. It’s gotten to the point where his firing seems inevitable.
Were there literally any red flags with that hiring? Seriously, what part of hiring Harbaugh in 2015 would’ve given Michigan pause? Sports are weird, and it’s not a simple formula. Fans should realize that coaching hires carry inherent risk, and there’s no guarantee of success. No matter who wears the orange polo.