For many, it finally happened. Jeremy Pruitt was relieved of his duties “for cause.” Speculation has been abound regarding whether or not Tennessee was looking for a reason to fire Pruitt, and while that may come out in the wash at some point, as they say, it’s unlikely to be anytime soon. Regardless, over half the fanbase (61.1 percent according to this article in The Athletic) had been clamoring to witness a change in leadership and they got it. In addition to Pruitt’s departure, now-former athletic director Phillip Fulmer retired.
On Thursday, it became known that the university had selected its next AD, in now-former UCF athletic director Danny White. Much has been/will be written about the hiring of White, his fit, and whether or not he’ll succeed, so I won’t spend time on that here. Early appearances indicate that many fans like the hire. I would like to see a poll gauging the fanbase’s collective reaction to this particular hiring.
While the athletic director is responsible for overseeing all sports at the university, let’s face it, in Knoxville, the job is synonymous with football – at least, that’s how I see it. Much of what White does (or doesn’t do) on Rocky Top will hinge on his next move: Hiring a new football coach.
Where the program moves from here is still up for conjecture. One must wonder whether or not a proven coach will want to inherit the mess that the program currently is. If that’s the case, Tennessee might be stuck with another smaller program coach, a similar refrain over the last decade.
Many names have been floated as potential candidates, but whether or not they’re serious contenders – based on their own preferences – is mostly anybody’s guess. In that same Athletic article, the plurality of respondents preferred Hugh Freeze to get the nod. Some have suggested that a program can’t get rid of one coach in favor of another who was in trouble for similar transgressions.
Gus Malzahn received the second number of votes, followed by Tom Herman, Jamey Chadwell, Billy Napier, Matt Campbell, and Lane Kiffin. I had previously written an article about the reasons the program should court Malzahn, but now he’s not likely to come anywhere near the inferno that is Tennessee football.
Of the remaining coaches on that list, I would be partial to Chadwell. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a product of my first alma mater, East Tennessee State University. To see a fellow Buccaneer on that stage would do my heart proud. But more than that, he took a sub-.500 program in Coastal Carolina and produced 11 wins in 2020, going 11-1, beating Louisiana, Appalachian State, and BYU along the way before narrowly losing to Liberty in the Cure Bowl. He’s unproven on the big stage but might be a worthy candidate.
On the field, things will certainly get worse before they get better. Tennessee has seen its share of decommitments in recent weeks, and now many players are opting to enter the transfer portal, a reasonable decision for any student-athlete to make given the program’s situation. It’s anyone’s guess how feeble Tennessee will prove to be once their 2021 season gets underway. But what quickly became a rudderless ship now might ostensibly have some direction, what with a new athletic director installed. I’m curious to see whether or not the program and university will move with the same rapidity in filling the head coaching vacancy, or will we simply see Kevin Steele run point as the interim head coach through the end of the year?
Hopefully Tennessee doesn’t continue to sink further into the pits of the Southeastern Conference, but one thing’s clear: This program needs to pick a direction and run with it. This obscenely high turnover rate isn’t likely to yield many wins, much less championships or SEC titles. Including interims, Tennessee will give the reins to five different coaches (if they make another hire) since 2017 – not exactly a model of success.