Tennessee’s coaching search to replace Jeremy Pruitt has seen several names tossed around during the first week of the pursuit for the next program leader. New athletic director Danny White has a good track record of hiring coaches from stints at Buffalo and UCF, but the obvious names may not be the ones who end up as finalists or even the final pick.
Getting this hire right is important for Tennessee. The program went 3-7 in 2020 and has posted losing records in three out of the last four years. The Volunteers have just two top-25 finishes since 2008. Additionally, the program has now cycled through four four-time head coaches since ’09.
With the search heating up, where does Tennessee go next for its next coach?
Athlon polled a group of editors and college football contributors to find out who their pick would be if the decision was theirs to make. As you can see below, a variety of names were mentioned for the job.
Tennessee Football: Who Should the Volunteers Hire to Replace Jeremy Pruitt?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Tennessee should swing big in its search and at least call coaches like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. Assuming those two names and other Power 5 coaches that have been mentioned in this search pass, the most obvious candidate has to be Louisiana’s Billy Napier. The Tennessee native is 28-11 since taking over in Lafayette and has guided the Ragin’ Cajuns to 21 wins and two Sun Belt division titles over the last two years. After a playing career at Furman, Napier built a strong resume prior to becoming a head coach, which includes stints working under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama. Napier’s specialty is offense, which is also a major need for Tennessee after finishing 10th or worse in the SEC in scoring in four consecutive years. He’s also a good recruiter, has a good knack for identifying talent and putting those players into schemes to execute at a high level. If Napier is interested, I’d hire him over Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
"Rocky Top" has taken on an unwelcome meaning for the football program in the last decade-plus, but that doesn't mean new Tennessee athletic director Danny White will lack for quality candidates for his first coaching hire at his new job. But White also really needs to find the right guy, as the Volunteers certainly could use some stability at the top. Among the names that have been mentioned, I really like Billy Napier. The Louisiana head coach has already been connected to other SEC openings, has an impressive resume (coached under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney), and he's young enough (41) to build Tennessee according to his vision, provided he gets enough time. I am intrigued by the recent reports regarding Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, but I'm not convinced his "row the boat" mantra fits in Knoxville, although he could always repackage it. That said, even with all of the question marks and the size of the rebuilding project ahead of him, I feel like the timing is right for Napier to return to the SEC.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Tennessee might be tempted by another top coordinator like Tony Elliott, but the Volunteers may benefit from someone with head coaching experience. Hugh Freeze would be entertaining to watch in a "can't take your eyes away" type of situation, but there are plenty of quality young coaches who could fit the bill. Billy Napier is likely biding his time for a better job, and Will Healy is a nice fallback option, but Jamey Chadwell would be an excellent fit. He's turned around three different, small programs and is ready to do it on the big stage after nearly putting together a perfect season at Coastal Carolina. Hire him now before he has another big season and bigger programs set eyes on him.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Tennessee has a few options to play with when finding a new head coach. Hire a guy who is a retread at the power level or pick a coach who has established himself as a winner at a lower level and hope that translates in the SEC. If Tennessee asked me, I would give a strong recommendation to hiring either Bill Clark of UAB or Billy Napier of Louisiana. Both have successful coaching backgrounds in the south and are destined for a new opportunity. Either would be a quality choice and it would be an actual coin flip for me to decide which to go with. I just flipped a quarter, and it looks like I'm going with Napier.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
A big mistake would be made by new Tennessee AD Danny White hiring Hugh Freeze, especially since White is an alumnus of Ole Miss with knowledge of Freeze's NCAA-sanctioned history. Easy to mention Josh Heupel, but his 2020 season with UCF (6-4) does not inspire confidence in Year 3. Contract issues aside, if Tennessee could land Billy Napier out of Louisiana, Indiana's Tom Allen, or Nevada's Jay Norvell that would be impactful; each is a proven winner and recruiter doing more with less.
A tie that might bind that few are talking about is Lance Leipold. In two years Leipold turned around Buffalo's program producing the school's first 10-win season ever (2018) and first back-to-back Division I/FBS winning campaigns since 1968-69. Leipold does not have a background in SEC territories (Nebraska and Wisconsin) but was a hire overseen at Buffalo by Danny White.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
I think Jamey Chadwell from Coastal Carolina is the most realistic option to be the next head coach at Tennessee. Hugh Freeze and Lane Kiffin would be great, but those guys are probably off the table given the circumstances. And while a proven Power 5 coach, such as Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, also would make for an excellent hire, that probably isn’t happening either with such a dark cloud hanging over the Tennessee football program at the moment. And the last thing the Vols need is another “big name” coordinator with no head coaching experience. Chadwell’s overall lack of head coaching experience makes him a gamble as well. However, if the Volunteers are going to roll the dice, and I think they have no choice, they could do far worse than the guy who took home Coach of the Year honors for this past season. Chadwell also checks a lot of boxes that Tennessee needs right now. He’s an East Tennessee guy, he’s young and enthusiastic, he runs a dynamic offense that I think would fare well in the SEC, he’s proven that he can win with less talent, and he wouldn’t command an enormous salary.
Juan Jose Rodriguez (@JuanJoseRG02)
Tennessee has brought in a recruiting class that has ranked (according to 247Sports) among the top 25 every year since 2009, with a handful of top-10 classes mixed in along the way. So the issue isn't necessarily attracting high-quality talent to Knoxville as much as it is actually growing and developing that talent upon arrival.
With that understanding, what Tennessee needs is an experienced leader who understands how to succeed among the elites of college football. While a dynamic young name might excite fans — and could be a good add as an assistant — a proven leader who can bring Tennessee back to respectability ought to be atop the leadership's radar.
Gus Malzahn did exactly that when he took over as Auburn's head coach before the 2013 season, and he should be the top priority for Tennessee this offseason. Auburn was winless in SEC play in 2012, but in '13 Malzahn's Tigers went 12-2 (7-1 in SEC play) before losing by a field goal to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
With all the changes in recent years, Malzahn's winning mindset — fueled by 68 wins and a .661 winning percentage in eight seasons at Auburn — would be a stabilizing presence that would be more than welcome on the home sidelines at Neyland Stadium.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
I honestly don't have a great feel for Tennessee right now. Gus Malzahn is the best available free agent by far, and I truly believe Malzahn was a top-10 FBS head coach when he was fired by Auburn. Hiring him would be a step in the right direction. However, the recent addition of Kevin Steele as the Volunteers' new defensive coordinator, despite his recent history working under Malzahn, complicates matters given the reports and rumors of politics behind the scenes over the last few months. Among other current head coaches mentioned, Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell makes a lot of sense. He's led multiple programs but is still young, turned the Chanticleers into an unlikely Top 25 team with a fantastic culture, is a play-calling and schematic darling for his unique option offense, and has ties to the state. Nevertheless, new AD Danny White has a strong track record for hiring head coaches, and often makes out-of-the-box hires. If White opts not to keep Steele in his interim role and goes for an outside hire, it's possible he surprises all of us.