Impatient SEC football programs don't care about the ramifications of firing a head coach during a money-losing COVID-19 pandemic. South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Auburn previously proved that money is no object and Tennessee followed suit Monday by firing coach Jeremy Pruitt (technically his contract will be terminated later today) even though he got an extension on the eve of the 2020 season and athletic director Phillip Fulmer essentially said Pruitt would be back despite a disappointing 3-7 record. SportsLine offers odds on the next permanent football coach at Tennessee with the likes of Billy Napier, Jamey Chadwell, Tom Herman, Hugh Freeze and current interim coach Kevin Steele as the favorites.
Money should be no object in the coaching search because Pruitt was fired with cause for "alleged NCAA violations under his watch." That means UT doesn't have to pay his $12.8 million buyout – although Pruitt will fight that cause firing and his lawyer already has released a lengthy statement calling the termination nothing more than an "orchestrated effort to renege on contractual promises." Pruitt's salary was set to increase to $4.2 million annually beginning in 2021 as part of that recent extension, and Pruitt was scheduled to receive a $200,000 retention bonus Feb. 15.
Pruitt seemed to have things pointed in the right direction after closing the 2019 season on a six-game winning streak and then winning the first two of this season. Everything started falling apart Oct. 10 at Georgia when the Vols were outscored 27-0 in the second half to lose 44-21. All seven losses this past season were by double digits and UT's five home defeats were by an average of 22 points. Pruitt compiled a 16-19 record at Tennessee, going 10-16 in the SEC and 2-11 against ranked opponents.
In the notice of intent to terminate letter sent to Pruitt by Tennessee officials, the university concluded that "the conduct by at least two assistant coaches and several recruiting staff members are likely to lead to an NCAA finding of Level I and/or Level II violations of one or more Governing Athletic Rules. The University also has concluded that these likely findings were the result of either your material neglect or lack of reasonable preventive compliance measures."
Fulmer announced he would also step down as AD, although the retirement is unrelated to the NCAA investigation. Whomever is hired as the new athletic director would then hire the coach but Vols legend Peyton Manning will play a role as well. Pruitt's replacement will be Tennessee's sixth different head coach going back to Fulmer, who was fired after the 2008 season.
Steele, who was at one point considered a leading candidate to replace the fired Gus Malzahn as the Auburn head coach (Boise State's Bryan Harsin got the job), takes over as the interim head coach from his defensive post at UT and according to reports will get a "serious look" for the full-time job. Steele played at Tennessee and started his coaching career in Knoxville under the late Johnny Majors. Steele was a finalist for the job when Pruitt was originally hired. Steele was the head coach at Baylor from 1999-02 and went 9-36 over those four years but is considered a top-notch recruiter.
Hey, if not Steele why not his former boss in Malzahn? He knows how to beat Nick Saban once in a while; Tennessee hasn't beaten Alabama since 2006. Auburn never won fewer than six games and went 39-27 in SEC play since 2013 under Malzahn.
The vast majority of Vols fans seem to want Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, who had so much success before that stop at Ole Miss. The UT offense was stagnant under Pruitt and that side of the ball is Freeze's specialty. However, he also has some serious baggage, including NCAA violations, from his watch with the Rebels. Many believe Tennessee will be scared off by that with it facing serious similar allegations now. Freeze was a high school coach in Tennessee at Briarcrest Christian and also at now-defunct Lambuth University in the state.
Billy Napier has led Louisiana to a 21-4 combined record the past two seasons and was born in Tennessee. He rebuffed both South Carolina and Auburn and has reaffirmed his commitment to the Ragin' Cajuns. Napier's stock is so high he might not want to walk into the NCAA mess at UT, but he has to be considered the favorite as things stand.
Texas surprisingly fired Tom Herman a few weeks ago to replace him with former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Herman has a 54-22 career record and 5-1 in bowl games with the Longhorns and Houston. Then again, he could simply choose to take this season off and count the $15 million buyout he got from Texas.
Jamey Chadwell has worked wonders at Coastal Carolina and just agreed to an extension last month, but that means little if an SEC school comes calling. The Home Depot Award winner as 2020 National Coach of the Year is a Tennessee native who played quarterback at East Tennessee State and also coached there. While Napier might turn UT down, Chadwell likely wouldn't.
North Carolina State's Dave Doeren also was in the running for the job last time it was open; former AD John Currie focused on him briefly after the Greg Schiano mess. In fact, Doeren's agent texted the following to Currie: "Let's get this done" and "he is fired up" regarding his client and the opening. Doeren ended up getting an extension with the Wolfpack. He's 78-50 combined at NC State and Northern Illinois.
UAB's Bill Clark, like Napier and Chadwell, might finally be ready for the jump from the Group of 5 to the Power 5 job. He spoke with Auburn about that opening and said this was why he eventually pulled his name from consideration: "I basically said the interest I would have is to do it right and everybody has their own version of what right is, for me, is complete control of my staff and all those things that go with it. I think maybe that was a hinderance. Once again, how far did we get down the path I won't really say because I'm happy at UAB and this is where I'm at."
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is going to get a Power 5 job sooner rather than later but has shown no inclination as of yet to leave Dabo Swinney's side unless it's a perfect fit. Tennessee facing major violations probably isn't that. Both the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans reached out to Elliott for their open coordinator jobs and he informed both clubs he plans to stay at Clemson for the time being.
Former Titans (and Rams) head coach Jeff Fisher is already on record saying he would have interest in the Vols' job: "If, for some reason, coach (Jeremy) Pruitt is no longer the head coach at the University of Tennessee, yes, I would have a great deal of interest in that program," Fisher said earlier this month. However, he hasn't coached since 2016 and never in college.
Doug Marrone helped lead the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC title game following the 2017 season and had two eight-wins seasons in charge at Syracuse (also two losing seasons) prior to that. He coached tight ends and offensive tackles under Fulmer in 2001 at Tennessee.
Ex-Penn State and Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien may have been a leading candidate if he hadn't already agreed to replace Sarkisian as the Alabama OC. Perhaps he can get out of that.
Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady seems highly unlikely as his stock is sky-high in the NFL and he might get the Philadelphia Eagles' top job.
The Vols open the 2021 season on Sept. 4 at home vs. MAC school Bowling Green.
Via SportsLine oddsmakers: Who will be the next full-time Tennessee football coach?
- Billy Napier +300
- Jamey Chadwell +400
- Kevin Steele +500
- Tom Herman +700
- Hugh Freeze +800
- Bill Clark +1000
- Gus Malzahn +1200
- Doug Marrone +1400
- Dave Doeren +1500
- Tony Elliott +1700
- Jeff Fisher +2000
- Bill O'Brien +2200
- Joe Brady +2500
The SportsLine Projection Model, which simulates every NFL game 10,000 times, is up almost $7,900 for $100 players on top-rated NFL picks since its inception five-plus years ago. It is a sizzling 24-14 on top-rated NFL picks this season, returning well over $800. The model also enters Championship Weekend in the 2021 NFL Playoffs on an incredible 120-78 run on top-rated NFL picks that dates back to the 2017 season.