Tennessee has done all it can to make an attractive job toxic. In firing coach Jeremy Pruitt on Monday, president Donde Plowman said NCAA recruiting violations facing the program are "significant," expecting that they will result in penalties and punishment for the Volunteers.
No wonder Tennessee elevated defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to "acting coach." Who of substance would take the job? The Vols first need time to hire an athletic director. (Phil Fulmer is retiring for unrelated reasons, UT says.) Then Tennessee needs to determine if it will have a competitive football team going forward.
Plowman's comments suggest it may be a while.
Despite the mess Tennessee finds itself in just under three weeks before National Signing Day, here are a few names to watch for the Vols job, whenever the position is ultimately filled.
Kevin Steele, Tennessee defensive coordinator: Right place, right time. Helluva defensive coach. Steele was reportedly a favorite at Auburn, where he was defensive coordinator, before the Tigers went with Bryan Harsin. Steele may get the 2021 season as sort of a super-interim gig to prove his worth for the full-time position.
Why not? Right now, Steele looks a lot like Pruitt as a veteran SEC defensive coordinator. Plus, someone, somewhere at Tennessee may wake up one day and realize Steele was 9-36 at Baylor, his only head coaching job to date. That person would fail to realize that was 18 years ago, and since then, Steele has worked for Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Les Miles and Gus Malzahn.
Tom Herman, former Texas coach: Herman is available and itching to get right back in the game after being fired at Texas. The Vols could do worse than hiring a guy with a .710 winning percentage who has never lost a bowl game.
Why not? Herman decides to lay out a year or two, counting his $15 million buyout.
Bill O'Brien, former Houston Texans coach: O'Brien may have done the best job of anyone, anywhere leading a program out of NCAA probation with Penn State in 2012-13. O'Brien knows how to overcome "significant" violations. Tennessee's can't be as bad as those he had to overcome at Penn State. Four division titles as Texans coach shouldn't be ignored.
Why not? O'Brien has agreed to become Alabama's next offensive coordinator, according to multiple reports. He may prefer that role given Saban's history of rejuvenating fired coaches.
Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator: Elliott would get to shape an SEC program from the bottom up. That is … if you consider Tennessee being burned to the ground. Tennessee would have to overpay considering the circumstances. Elliott might go for a six-year, $24 million contract that is automatically extended for every year of Tennessee's probation.
Why not? Elliott is still at Clemson because he has been picky about his next move. He can do better than Tennessee right now. Much better.
Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina coach: Caldwell, a Tennessee native, would take it without hesitation, an NCAA investigation be damned. You don't turn down a job at (what used to be) a traditional SEC power. Chadwell would be cheap (compared to others) and has already proven he can win big with less, which the Vols may have to do for a few years.
Why not? Tennessee would be taking somewhat of a flyer. Chadwell would be the sixth consecutive UT coach without previous Power Five head coaching experience. (Not counting interims.) There's always the chance an angry mob may wake up one day, realize this, and run Chadwell out of town. Hey, it's happened before.
Hugh Freeze, Liberty coach: Freeze desperate wants this job and will do anything to get it. When his name came up for other opportunities this offseason, it was rumored that he was waiting for Tennessee to open because it was No. 1 on his list.
Why not? By hiring Freeze, Tennessee would be effectively thumbing its nose at the NCAA in the middle of an ongoing investigation. Ole Miss' probation (on Freeze's watch) just ended on Nov. 30, 2020. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey may approve of Freeze's return to the league, but expecting him to make that call for a program dealing with NCAA issues is a tough ask.
Gus Malzahn, former Auburn coach: Tennessee would get a veteran SEC coach with championship pedigree who has defeated Saban three times.
Why not? Gus had an issue developing quarterbacks. It would be more than awkward for Malzahn to inherit his old DC, Steele, if his retention was a condition of hiring.
Billy Napier, Louisiana coach: Along with Chadwell, Napier is considered a rising Group of Five star. He has extensive experience in the Southeast with Alabama and Clemson. Napier is also a Tennessee native.
Why not? Napier turned down a chance to go after the Auburn job. He's not going to take Tennessee with looming, significant NCAA penalties when he may be able to get a big-time opportunity in 2021.