Tennessee Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt has had a pretty good seven month stretch.
After starting the 2019 season with a 1-4 record, Pruitt got the Vols on the right track and led Tennessee to six straight wins to close the season.
Pruitt then landed a top 10 2020 recruiting class and he currently has UT at No. 2 in the 2021 recruiting rankings.
Because of Pruitt’s recent success, there’s been some social media chatter about whether or not he would be the guy to eventually replace Nick Saban at Alabama.
I don’t expect Saban to retire in the near future, but it’s eventually going to happen. He’s 68. And the way college football coaches have been retiring young lately (Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen), it’s certainly possible that Saban could shock everyone and retire out of nowhere one day. He’s been at it since the early 1970’s and he’s accomplished everything there is to accomplish in college football. At some point, you have to wonder what’s motivating Saban to continue.
So when Saban retires, who will be the candidates to replace him? How far up the list will Pruitt be?
I think the first thing we have to do is rule out some names from the “Saban coaching tree”.
We can probably forget about Will Muschamp (coached with Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins), who was fired at Florida and will probably be fired from South Carolina in the not-so-distant future.
Jim McElwain (Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama for four years) is also out of the mix after getting fired at Florida.
Mike Locksley (former offensive coordinator at Alabama) is also probably not an option. He was terrible at New Mexico (winning two games in two plus years) and he didn’t get off to a great start at Maryland in 2019 (going 3-9 in his first year as the Terrapins’ head coach).
Jimbo Fisher (Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU) is getting paid pretty well at Texas A&M. I don’t see him being a viable option either.
Kirby Smart (former Alabama defensive coordinator) played at Georgia. He’s at his dream job already. There’s no way he’s leaving Athens.
Freddie Kitchens (graduate assistant at LSU under Saban, also an Alabama graduate) was a disaster as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach. It’s hard to imagine him being an option as a head coach again — even at the college level.
I don’t think NFL names attached to Saban, with very little college experience — Adam Gase and Jason Garrett for example — will be considered, either.
Butch Jones (current Alabama analyst)…..well I just put this one here for laughs.
Moving on to the potential candidates (in no particular order).
Dabo Swinney — Clemson head coach (played at Alabama)
Swinney is obviously going to be the top option for Alabama. This will be his job to turn down. But I wouldn’t leave for Alabama if I were Swinney. He has Clemson rolling. And he’d be in an impossible situation following Saban at Alabama. However, I’ve talked to some folks close to the Clemson program on various occasions and there’s at least some concern that Swinney would be willing to listen to Alabama. Ultimately, though, I don’t see it happening.
Billy Napier — Louisiana head coach (former wide receivers coach at Alabama)
Napier is a nice up-and-coming head coach that went 11-3 in his second season as Louisiana’s head coach (his first head coaching gig). Alabama would obviously want to target someone with more experience, but Napier could be a viable option by the time Saban retires.
Major Applewhite — Alabama analyst (former Alabama offensive coordinator)
I almost put Applewhite in the not-an-option column, but I think he’d have an outside shot. Applewhite was fired at Houston despite two winning seasons. Maybe he would be considered if he climbs the ladder at Alabama and becomes a key part of Saban’s coaching staff.
Mel Tucker — Michigan State head coach (coached with Saban at LSU and Alabama)
This could be an interesting option if Tucker has success at Michigan State (which is where Saban coached before he took the LSU job in 2000). Tucker is widely regarded as having a great defensive mind (he was a finalist for the Tennessee job when Pruitt was hired). And he bolted from Colorado after one season, so I’m sure he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to coach at Alabama.
Scott Linehan — LSU passing game coordinator (Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator in 2005 under Saban)
This seems like a long shot, but Linehan could be a nice stopgap between Saban and the next longterm coach at Alabama. Linehan has head coaching experience and he’s returning to the college game this year to replace Joe Brady as LSU’s passing game coordinator. He could be dark horse candidate to replace Saban.
The non-Saban coaching tree candidates
If Alabama goes outside of the Saban coaching tree, they’d obviously take a swing at the big names: Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen. If none of those want to come out of retirement, then they’d have to target some names that are already in pretty good situations. Lincoln Riley seems unlikely to leave Oklahoma (unless it’s for the NFL). James Franklin is a good fit at Penn State. Dan Mullen probably isn’t leaving Florida. It might mean that a name like Minnesota’s PJ Fleck is Alabama’s best option (and he wouldn’t be a good fit).
Which leads us to Pruitt.
Based on the names on that list, Pruitt is probably the second best option (behind Swinney) for Alabama. At least as of right now.
Now, the big question is whether or not Pruitt would want to leave Tennessee for Alabama.
There’s no doubt that Alabama is “home” for Pruitt. He played there, got his first college coaching job there and has won a national championship as a defensive coordinator there. It would certainly be tempting for Pruitt.
But I don’t think it would be smart.
There’s no way Pruitt, or any other coach, is going to live up to what Saban did at Alabama. A couple of eight or nine win seasons could mean Pruitt would be out of a job.
At Tennessee, though, Pruitt is building something lasting. The Vols, under Pruitt, have the potential to be the next Clemson.
And why would Pruitt want to leave that?
Pruitt is a loyal guy. But he’s more loyal to his players than anything. I think he’d have a hard time leaving behind his players for an unsure thing at Alabama.
It’s reasonable for Tennessee fans to be concerned about Pruitt leaving if the Alabama job comes open (just like Clemson fans should be), but for now I lean toward Tennessee keeping their coach in that scenario.
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