The old man down the street has a spring in his step. Your buddies are blowing up your phone 24/7. John in the office down the hall is typing and scrolling away a little more ferociously. Once again, it’s coaching search time in Tennessee. Without an athletic director in place, any and all speculation is premature… but that’s never stopped us before, and it won’t now. Without further adieu, here is a tiered assessment of realistic potential hires for the Vols program. Each of these names has been listed by at least one reputable media outlet as a potential replacement for Jeremy Pruitt.
Tier One: The Tell Me No’s
Tier one candidates are the cream of this years’ coaching crop. Unlike past searches, this cycle doesn’t yet have a white whale hire. With no Gruden, Stoops or Muschamp (yes, at one time he was the most sought after man on Rocky Top) these guys lack the star power normally reserved for a tier one coach, but history will show that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Star power or not, the odds are long that either of these highly sought after winners are coming to Rocky Top. These are the guys you make tell you no before you move on to anyone else. Landing either should be lauded as the biggest victory the football program has seen since beating Florida in ’01.
Matt Campbell (IOWA STATE)
Win/Loss Record: 70-43 (62%)
Bowl Record: 4-3
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 11-17
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2020 Fiesta Bowl
Ten Win Seasons: 0
Breakdown: The three time Big-12 Coach of the Year’s résumé on paper doesn’t stand out. Only when it is considered in the context of Iowa State is it truly impressive. In the thirty years prior to Campbell’s arrival at the Big-12 bottom dweller, Iowa state finished above .500 only eight times, under the leadership of five different head coaches. Iowa State hasn’t received even a share of a conference title since 1912. Campbell has finished at least two games above .500 in all but his first season in Ames, and this year led them to a Big-12 Title Game, and the schools first ever New Years bowl victory. He turned a historic loser into a consistent winner, and even a winner at the NY6 level. Reportedly, Campbell has already turned down the Detroit Lions this offseason, but he would still be my first phone call.
Luke Fickell (CINCINNATI)
Win/Loss Record: 35-14 (71%)
Bowl Record: 2-2
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 4-8
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2020 AAC Championship
Ten Win Seasons: 2
Breakdown: I can already hear groaning from some. “Not another coach from Cincinnati.” But what Fickell has done at Cincinnati, particularly when compared with Butch Jones’ achievements at the same school, is astounding. Jones was 0-5 against ranked opponents at Cinci, Fickell has recorded four such wins. Jones got blown out by a Derek Dooley coached Tennessee squad, Fickell went down to the wire with Georgia in this years Peach Bowl. He has a better record, better teams, and a higher national profile than Jones ever did at the midwestern midmajor. He’s lead the little Ohio school to national recognition, and proven himself a consistent winner, charting a 31-6 record over the last three seasons, and remaining competitive against some of the best the big conferences have to offer. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Fickell would be close.
Tier 2: The Baggage Claim
Tier 2 coaches have experienced some success, and demonstrated the ability to win at a high level. However, they come with a cost. Each of these has a black mark, fair or not, that lead to his omission from Tier 1.d
HUGH FREEZE (LIBERTY)
Win/Loss Record: 66-33 (66%)
Bowl Record: 4-2
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 14-16
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2015 Sugar Bowl, 2010 Sun-Belt Championship
Ten Win Seasons: 3
Breakdown: Freeze might be the most proven winner on the list. He’s the man who forced Nick Saban to change the way he coaches football. The bio could end there and be sufficient. He’s had a double digit win season at every school he’s ever served as head coach, a mark made all the more impressive when you consider the schools are Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty. To almost have a winning record against ranked opponents across nearly 100 games at those three schools is something few others could ever pull off. However, few others carry the type of baggage Freeze brings with him. Can a school that just publicly declared the importance of integrity and winning the right way really hire a guy contorted with cheating and call girls? He would win here, if the NCAA didn’t find ways to stop him.
TOM HERMAN (FIRED BY TEXAS)
Win/Loss Record: 54-22 (71%)
Bowl Record: 5-0
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 15-11
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2018 Sugar Bowl, 2015 Peach Bowl,
Ten Win Seasons: 2
Breakdown: Herman holds the distinction as the winningest coach on this list across stints at the Universities of Houston and Texas. He has a nice winning percentage and NY6 bowl victories at both schools. He is also the only man on the list with a winning record against ranked opponents. Seems like a no brainer right? Why isn’t he ranked higher? That question leads to another, why was he just unceremoniously dismissed from the University of Texas? Rumors abound, but it’s likely due to what many would consider underachievement during his four seasons in Austin. At Houston, he recorded twenty-two wins in two years. At Texas, only thirty-two in four tries. He was the hottest young name in coaching in 2016, but couldn’t get it done at a high level at Texas. Where is it easier to win than at Texas, where a coach has nearly unlimited resources, a strong brand and a sea of talent to recruit from on all sides? If he was a consistent underachiever there, would he be a winner at Tennessee, where it is markedly more difficult to succeed? There are no sure things in coaching.
Tier Three: The Risky Moves
Tier 3 coaches have a lot of one thing – upside. These guys have a fair amount of question marks, and haven’t had the kind of success at the highest level to warrant stardom, but boy is there a lot to work with. Guys from this group could rocket into Tier 1, or just as easily flop and wind up getting coffee for Nick Saban in a few years.
LANE KIFFIN (OLE MISS)
Win/Loss Record: 66-39 (63%)
Bowl Record: 5-5
Record Against Ranked Opponents:
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2019 C-USA Championship, 2017 C-USA Championship
Ten Win Seasons: 3
Breakdown: Kiffin is the hardest coach on the list to classify. Like a star approaching supernova, in the past his brilliance has only been surpassed by his destructive instability. Lauded as an offensive genius, he has proven his play calling and QB development chops across multiple decades and a handful of football teams. However, for one reason or another, he has not had big time success at a big time school… yet. At Tennessee, he left after one promising season. At USC, he was hamstrung by scholarship reduction and his own immaturity. Then after a stint at Saban’s coaching rehab, he flourished at perennial doormat FAU, and has Ole Miss rolling heading into year two. Kiffin would inject a struggling program with excitement. He would recruit well, and develop a quarterback. Those things are near certainties. But would he provide the stable, sustainable growth that Tennessee needs to restore its program, or would his unpredictable nature only worsen the problem he helped create?
BILLY NAPIER (LOUISIANA LAFAYETTE)
Win/Loss Record: 28-11 (72%)
Bowl Record: 2-1
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 1-3
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2020 Sun Belt Chamions
Ten Win Seasons: 2
Breakdown: Napier is a young up and comer who has shattered all expectations in his first head coaching gig. He’s broken several program records at Louisiana Lafayette, including: first win on the road against a ranked foe, highest ranking in school history, first double digit win season in school history, and first regular season game ever aired on ESPN. He has been a transformative leader for the UL program, but is he up to the task at Tennessee ? His abysmal record against ranked foes, even at a school as historically disadvantaged as UL, gives me pause. Is he a new and improved Butch, adept and kicking around weaklings, but unable to make the jump to the big leagues? There is only one way to find out.
Tier Four: The Retreads
This group is the opposite of the tier above it, comprised of guys who have had a shot at a big time job, and been, to be fair, mediocre. This tier is the last containing coaches that I am confident would be an upgrade over Jeremy Pruitt. Maybe a little grey hair and experience is what Tennessee needs?
GUS MALZAHN (FIRED BY AUBURN)
Record: 77-38 (77%)
Bowl Record: 2-5
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 19-27
Championships/NY6 Bowls: 2013 SEC Championship, 2012 Sun Belt Championship
Ten Win Seasons: 2
Breakdown: Malzahn is probably the most experienced college coach on this list, with 9 years as a head coach, eight of which were spent in the nation’s toughest division, the SEC West. He boasts an SEC Title, over seventy wins, and a national championship appearance. So, why isn’t he atop the list? Malzahn’s best achievements are behind him, way behind him. Since winning the SEC title in his first season at Auburn, Malzahn has found double digit wins exactly one time, and his most significant post season win is the Music City Bowl. His teams routinely win 7-9 games a year, and are middle of the pack in the SEC. If he’s been average at an Auburn program with much more success this century than Tennessee, why would he be a big hit at comparable Tennessee ?
BILL O’BRIEN (FIRED BY HOUSTON TEXANS)
Win/Loss NFL: 54-52 (51%)
Win/Loss College: (63%$
NFL Playoff Record: 2-4
Breakdown: Anytime someone who has made the NFL Playoffs four of the last six years is interested in your college coaching job, you listen. Unfortunately, that person may be Bill O’Brien as opposed to Andy Reid or Bill Bellichick. O’Brien left behind a dumpster fire in Houston, complete with a star quarterback looking for a trade. What coaching acumen he has was eventually overshadowed by his poor skills as a GM, giving up star talent and valuable picks for little return. Could he thrive in an environment like the college game, where the egos are more manageable, and personnel decisions less complex? He helped navigate Penn. State through a four year bowl band and massive scholarship reduction. Perhaps he knows the secret to what ails the Vols.
Tier Four: The Reaches
In every coaching search, some message board yahoo pumps up a young coach who is just entirely too inexperienced and unproven for serious consideration. However, considering the 2017 search saw several public refusals and a last minute shotgun marriage between Tennessee and a defensive coordinator no one else was looking at hiring, little is beyond the scope of possibility in a Vols coaching search.
JAMEY CHADWELL (COASTAL CAROLINA)
Win/Loss Record: 16-8 (64%)
Bowl Record: 0-1
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 2-1
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2020 Sun-Belt Championship
Ten Win Seasons: 1
Breakdown: Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, originally from Caryville, TN, became the darling of some sections of the fan base this season. He lead his team to an 11-1 record, narrowly losing the Cure Bowl to Hugh Freeze and the Liberty Flames. Chadwell has only had two seasons as a head coach, and has spent no time on the staff of a Power 5 college football staff. To say he is inexperienced does not scratch the surface. Despite the hometown boy’s one season of Sun-Belt brilliance, he would be immediately over his head at Tennessee, with no comparable experience anywhere. In a few years, he could be the Big Orange Messiah some say he is, but not yet.
Tier Five: The Last Resorts
Every list has an ending, every pit has a bottom. These coaches are what’s left over after you classify everyone else on the Vols list. The hiring of any of these must be viewed as more of the same, or worse. These guys are guys no other major program will hire, or, exactly what Tennessee has traditionally hired. Jeremy Pruitt, Butch Jones, and Derek Dooley would all have come from this end of past tiered candidate lists.
KEVIN STEELE (TENNESSEE INTERIM)
Steele hasn’t been a head coach at any level in so long (nineteen years) that listing his abysmal accolades from Baylor in the early 2000s is hardly worthwhile. Steele has a career as a defensive assistant as long as your arm, including stints as defensive coordinator at Auburn, Alabama, and Clemson. He’s spent a lot of time coaching and recruiting in the South East, but there’s a reason he’s never gotten another bite at the apple. Auburn passed on him, as did various other big time programs searching for a coach. Tennessee should do the same, as it should have with Pruitt.
TOM ALLEN (INDIANA)
Win/Loss Record: 24-22 (52%)
Bowl Record: 0-3
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 3-14
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 0
Ten Win Seasons: 0
Breakdown: If you question my placing of Matt Campbell atop this list, consider Tom Allen. Indiana and Iowa State are both historic losers, and both coaches have seen historic success at their respective programs. The difference is, the trained eye can see that Campbell’s success is superior. Allen is 3-14 against ranked foes, the worst record on this list. In Indiana’s best season in years, Lane Kiffin’s unranked Ole Miss team beat them handily in the Outback Bowl. Need I say more?
BILL CLARK (UAB)
Win/Loss Record: 51-26 (66%)
Bowl Record: 1-2
Record Against Ranked Opponents: 0-2
Championships/NY6 Bowl Wins: 2020 C-USA Champions, 2018 C-USA Champions
Ten Win Seasons: 11-3
Breakdown: Clark has a double digit win season, two conference titles, and a 0.66 win percentage. Why is he ranked so low? His immediate rebuild of the UAB program is certainly impressive, but what I can’t get past is the resemblance his record bears to that of Butch Jones before his arrival on Rocky Top. Several average years at an average school, with an occasional big season sprinkled in, and no wins against a ranked opponent in six seasons. Clark is likely a guy who has reached the apex of the Peter Principle. He’s a great coach for the mid-majors, and that’s where he should stay.
Who would I hire?
My realistic list starts with Campbell, then moves to Herman, and then Kiffin. One of those three should be willing to take this job for the right price. They have youth, experience, and tons of upside. If they all turn you down, I’d move to quickly settle with Gus Malzahn. Here’s to hoping for a successful search.