The inside story of Tennessee football’s coaching search last fall came out this week on various websites, giving insight into what went on during a wild few days last November.
At the time, the Tennessee athletic department was enduring a full-blown crisis thanks to its football program.
Then-Athletic Director John Currie zeroed in on Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to be the team’s next head coach, replacing Butch Jones following a pathetic four-win season in Knoxville, Tenn.
Schiano, who went 68-67 at Rutgers and flamed out in the NFL after two seasons with Tampa Bay, was never a popular candidate.
On Nov. 26, word got out who Currie was planning on hiring, and the majority of the Vols’ passionate fan base revolted. While he did receive texts and emails that were congratulatory, most were blasted him for his decision. One such read, “If you hire Schiano, I’m out. We’re all out. You’re killing the program if to do that.”
Many Tennessee fans used the fact Schiano was on staff at Penn State during Jerry Sandusky’s reign of terror, and loosely came to the conclusion he helped cover up Sandusky’s horrific behavior. Schiano’s involvement in the scandal was never proven, but that didn’t stop Tennessee fans from voicing their displeasure.
The push back on Schiano was so fierce, Currie reached out to reporters and asked for them to help him with the public relations nightmare.
After backtracking on Schiano, Currie pursued Mike Leach and Dave Doeren, who are the head coaches at Washington State and NC State, respectively. Both were shot down by Vols fans,.
It was an unmitigated PR disaster, as seemingly everything Currie tried to do was met with instant backlash. He went through candidate after candidate, including Tee Martin, who quarterbacked Tennessee to a national title in 1998.
By the time Currie finally hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the damage done to the athletic department and program’s reputation was too much to undo.
Currie was fired Dec. 1 and replaced by former Vols head coach Phillip Fulmer.
While all of this was going on, the question of whether or not Tennessee was still a “destination job” in college football–up there with Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, etc.–was being asked.
I asked our followers on Twitter (@PureSportsCFB) what they think as well.
POLL: Is Tennessee still a premier job in college football?
— Pure Sports CFB (@PureSportsCFB) March 25, 2018
Over the last decade, the answer is unquestionably no. From the Lane Kiffin hire in Dec. 2008 to now, the Vols have just two seasons with more than eight wins, and seven seasons with at least six losses.
But, historically, it is one of the best jobs in college football. If you think about what all great programs have, Tennessee checks those same boxes.
Game atmosphere? Check. Neyland Stadium holds approximately 102,000 thousand people and is jam-packed on game days. The tailgating scene along the banks of the Tennessee River outside the stadium is in a league of its own.
Winning tradition? Check. The Vols are 13th all time in winning percentage (.682) and own the second-best SEC winning percentage (.640). Tennessee is also sixth all time in bowl appearances and third all time in bowl victories, and, until last season, was one of only two programs in the country to have never experienced a season with more than seven losses (the other is Ohio State).
Recently, though, Tennessee just hired bad coaches. Lane Kiffin left after one season, Derek Dooley was in over his head from the beginning and Butch Jones never got the production to match his great recruiting classes.
This tweet sums up the end of Jones’ tenure with the Vols:
Tennessee's most recent game vs each SEC team:
Alabama – L 45-7
Arkansas – L 24-20
Auburn – L 55-23
Florida – L 26-20
Georgia – L 41-0
Kentucky – L 29-26
LSU – L 38-7
Mizzou – L 50-17
Miss State – L 41-31
Ole Miss – L 34-3
SCar – L 15-9
Texas A&M – L 45-38
Vandy – L 45-34
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) November 12, 2017
I think the most important question when considering if a program is still a premier job in college football is this: is the sport better if this team is good?
For Tennessee, the answer is absolutely yes. Think of all of the great annual SEC rivalries that have stunk for the better part of a decade because the Vols haven’t been good. For example, Tennessee’s games against Alabama, Georgia and Florida used to be appointment television because it often would decide division and conference races in the SEC. Even though Florida hasn’t been the same since Urban Meyer left, the Vols have beaten the Gators just once since 2004.
So, for me, I believe Tennessee is still a premier job in 2018, which I know is a minority opinion. But, like every other job in America, it has its downsides, like how the immense pressure of winning at has eaten alive John Currie, Butch Jones and Derek Dooley among others.
The most important thing in my opinion would be for the fan base to temper expectations for Jeremy Pruitt, who, while he’s proved to be a stellar defensive coordinator, has never been a head coach at any level.
As a fan of the sport as a whole, I hope Pruitt can get things cooking in Knoxville, Tenn. again, because when the Vols are good, college football is even better.