Tennessee has fired Jeremy Pruitt following an internal investigation showing he committed recruiting violations which puts the Volunteers in an interesting position searching for a new coach in mid January. I wanted to take a look at some candidates they could look at to fill the position. Since this is Tennessee, and Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer is stepping down, this is sure to be a whirlwind of a search so grab onto your seat and let’s look at the candidates:
Hugh Freeze (Liberty HC) – Freeze should be the betting favorite for the next Tennessee head coach. It has been rumored that the Vols is his dream job and he is a coach who has proven he can win. There is the whole issue of having a scandal at Ole Miss and if Tennessee would be willing to accept that since they just fired a coach for breaking rules. Freeze is 18-6 at Liberty in two years and was 39-25 at Ole Miss. Freeze has only had one losing season dating back to his time at Lambuth starting in 2009. Freeze makes sense, it depends if Tennessee is will take the risk.
Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina HC) – The head coach of Coastal Carolina has built programs up at nearly stop he has made including going 11-1 this past season. Chadwell just signed an extension to keep him with Coastal Carolina through 2027 so from the outside, he has the intention on staying there for a while. Chadwell is from Tennessee and played at East Tennessee State so he has connections to the state. Joining a program this late can be a risk. Is this a job he would jump for or would he wait for a better opportunity?
Billy Napier (Louisiana HC) – Napier is 28-11 at Louisiana and a proven winner. His last two seasons he 21-4 and has shown he is ready for a bigger job. He has worked for some of the best coaches in college football working at Clemson under Dabo Swinney and Alabama under Nick Saban. Napier, coincidentally, was also born in Tennessee and went to high school in Georgia right on the Tennessee boarder. Napier has his Louisana program rolling, does he think the Vols is the right program for him?
Tom Herman (Former Texas/Houston HC) – Herman was recently let go from Texas and is looking for work. He has no ties to the SEC or the state of Tennessee, but Herman is overall a good coach. Herman was 32-18 at Texas and was 4-0 in bowl games. Herman would not be expected to win immediately and could bring in a staff to help him recruit against the SEC. His price tag would not be cheap, but it could be worth it if he can compete with the SEC East.
Kevin Steele (Tennessee Interim HC/DC) – Steele just arrived in Knoxville, but he was named Interim Head Coach after Pruitt was let go. Most likely, Tennessee will find someone from outside the program to take the reigns, but Steele is the favorite internal candidate should Tennessee choose to go this season with an interim head coach. Steele has been all through the SEC with previous stops at Auburn, Alabama, LSU as well as being a GA at Tennessee. His only head coaching experience was a stop at Baylor from 1999-2002 in which he was 9-37. If there was an underdog in this race, it would be Kevin Steele.
Brent Venables (Clemson DC) – Venables is not taking the Tennessee job. Let me make that clear. That does not mean it will stop Tennessee from reaching out to check his interest. Venables has been by Dabo’s side and has had chances to leave to run his own program at better places than Tennessee (This is not saying Tennessee is a bad place, but firing your coach with cause in January makes the program less attractive). Tennessee will call Venables, but will he even answer the phone call?
Gus Malzahn (Former Auburn HC) – Malzahn had an overall successful career at Auburn including a National Championship apperance. He went 68-35 at Auburn and finished ranked five times in nine seasons. Malzahn’s next stop will almost certainly be as a head coach again and he should be able to get another power five coaching job. Malzahn is considered to be one of the better offensive minded coaches in college football and can recruit in the SEC. This would also give him a chance to play in the SEC East which is viewed as the easier side of the SEC.
Dan Lanning (Georgia Defensive Coordinator) – This is a reach here, and I will admit that. Lanning nearly went to Texas to be the new DC under Steve Sarkisian but chose to stay at Georgia. He is only 34 years old and was a graduate assistant under Nick Saban in 2015 so he has not been coaching long. Kirby Smart thinks highly of him to make him defensive coordinator after Mel Tucker left. Lanning also received a raise where he is now making more than a million per season. If Tennessee were to look at a potential young and upcoming coach, Lanning would be an interesting choice. He coached at Memphis so this gives him ties to the state of Tennessee.
Bill Clark (UAB Head Coach) – Clark is one of the most underrated head coaches in all of college football. In a short summary, he watched his program completely eliminated, fought to get them back, and has had a winning season in each season since the return. Most programs would have had a major setback, Clark’s team somehow got better. He won Conference USA in 2018 and 2020 and is ready for a bigger job. Tennessee may look at some bigger name candidates, but Bill Clark would be an excellent hire.
Analysis: Hugh Freeze makes the most sense, but I think Tennessee passes on him because of his history at Ole Miss. Most schools do not want a coach to leave in controversy then hire a controversial head coach. Billy Napier is who I would make my top candidate. My gut says they hire either Gus Malzahn, keep Kevin Steele for a year, or sell Chadwell on the program. The interesting part of this whole process is Tennessee does not have an Athletic Director, so who knows how long it will take to get a head coach in place. Who knows how long a hire will actually take?