The Tennessee Vols’ 2017 coaching search will go down as one of the most bizarre in college football history.
There was the botched hiring of Greg Schiano, John Currie’s rogue lunch with Mike Leach (and Currie’s subsequent firing), and the return of legendary UT coach Phillip Fulmer as athletic director.
And those are just the cliff notes.
In the immediate aftermath of the search, which concluded on December 7 with Fulmer’s hiring of Jeremy Pruitt, plenty of analysts hesitated to suggest that the “disastrous” ordeal had a positive outcome for the Vols.
Two years later, however, I think we have enough information to firmly say that Tennessee’s 2017 coaching search was far from a disaster.
Let’s take a look at the other candidates in the search that were linked to Tennessee before Pruitt was hired and how they’ve fared since.
Scott Frost — Nebraska head coach
Back in 2017, I thought Frost should be one of Tennessee’s top targets. What he did with UCF in his second season with the program was simply incredible. Going from 6-7 in year one to 13-0 in year two is an amazing accomplishment, regardless of what confidence a program plays in.
Frost was never really a legitimate option for the Vols, though. Once the Nebraska and Florida jobs were open, Tennessee was never going to be higher than third on his list of preferred destinations.
The former Nebraska quarterback has struggled a bit during his first two years as the Cornhuskers’ head coach. The program went 4-8 in 2018 and 5-7 in 2019. Despite the struggles, Frost recently received an extension.
Mike Leach — Washington State head coach
There was a point in 2017, like there was with several coaches mentioned here, that Leach to Tennessee looked inevitable.
Then athletic director John Currie did his best to hire Leach, but Tennessee’s administration put a stop to it before the deal could be completed. And then UT fired Currie.
While I have no idea how Leach’s offense would work in the SEC (it’s been a long time since his days as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator), there’s no doubt he’d be an entertaining coach.
But I’m not sure Leach could actually handle the intense pressure/scrutiny that comes with coaching in the SEC.
Sure, Leach’s frequent off-subject diatribes are fun to listen to, but they also serve a purpose — they keep Leach from actually discussing his team.
When things aren’t going well for Leach, interactions with reporters can get contentious.
Mike Leach didn’t care to get into a conversation with @JPBlanchette about why #WSU can’t beat #UW despite having success against other teams with top-10 recruiting classes. Leach gets pretty fiery here. pic.twitter.com/fLa17dLJI0
— Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR) November 30, 2019
As for the results on the field for Leach since 2017? His Cougars went 11-2 in 2018 (his best season at Washington State so far) and 6-6 in 2019.
Chip Kelly — UCLA head coach
Chip Kelly was never a realistic option for the Vols — he was more of a pipe dream.
But I still advocated for Tennessee to consider hiring him in 2017. I was certain that Kelly was a sure thing and had the potential to immediately turn the Vols’ luck around.
Kelly was never seriously linked to any job other than the UCLA job. It definitely wasn’t a shock to see the New Hampshire native return to the Pac-12, where he made his name at Oregon.
However, things haven’t went very well for Kelly during his first two seasons in Los Angeles. The Bruins went 3-9 in 2018 and 4-8 in 2019. Perhaps things will get better for Kelly in the near future, but I think it’s safe to say that he would’ve struggled mightily during the early years at Tennessee had he ended up in Knoxville.
Dave Doeren — NC State head coach
I was quite surprised when the Vols reportedly showed interest in NC State head coach Dave Doeren.
This is a coach, after all, who bragged about one of his players giving a Clemson player a concussion in 2016. No school needs that.
I also didn’t think Doeren would be a successful head coach at Tennessee. His mediocre success at NC State did nothing to make me believe he could turn things around on Rocky Top.
In 2018, he had had his second straight nine win season at NC State (he’s never had more than nine wins in a season at NC State). In 2019, Doeren’s Wolfpack finished with a 4-8 record.
That sounds remarkably similar to Butch Jones’ record at Tennessee….
Jeff Brohm — Purdue head coach
Once the Vols missed out on Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy (as is customary during a Tennessee coaching search), the program pivoted to Jeff Brohm.
At one point, there were reports that Brohm would be the Vols’ next head coach. Those reports turned out to be premature.
I thought, at the time, that Brohm would’ve been a good hire for Tennessee. Brohm went 7-6 in his first season with Purdue in 2017, which was impressive considering the Boilermakers won just three games in 2016.
Unfortunately for Purdue, the program hasn’t improved much (if any) since 2017. In 2018, the Boilermakers went 6-7. This past season, Purdue finished 4-8. Perhaps it was the Vols who dodged disaster by not hiring Brohm (who reportedly turned Tennessee down in 2017).
Dan Mullen — Florida head coach
This is the one hire that probably would’ve worked out in Tennessee’s favor. Mullen is an established coach that found success at Mississippi State and he’s already led Florida to two ten win seasons.
But while I think Mullen probably would’ve been more successful early on at Tennessee than Pruitt has been, I think it’s clear that the coaching search worked out for both parties the way it probably should’ve.
Mullen is a better fit at Florida than he would’ve been at Tennessee. Pruitt is a better fit at Tennessee than Mullen would’ve been.
Now, how will things work out in the long run for both coaches?
That’s impossible to know.
But for now, I think both programs are happy with their trajectories.
The 2017 coaching search might’ve been anything but smooth for Tennessee, but the result ended up being perfect for a program that’s went through a litany of head coaches in the last decade.
Featured image via Randy Sartin/USA Today