Three years after Tennessee settled for Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt.
“Sources: Tennessee will be parting ways with coach Jeremy Pruitt today. AD Phil Fulmer's future will also be addressed,” Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel tweeted on Monday, ending months of speculation surrounding Pruitt’s job security after a three-win season, Pruitt’s third as head coach.
The move comes 38 months after Tennessee was poised to replace fired head coach Butch Jones with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Public outrage over Schiano’s alleged involvement in the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal nixed their intentions and led the Vols, namely then-athletics director John Currie, to Mike Leach. That plan, however, was nixed by University of Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport, who said no to Leach and fired Currie. Finally, the Vols landed on Jeremy Pruitt, the hand-picked choice of new athletics director Phillip Fulmer. It didn’t work; Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons, never finished above third in the SEC, and was routinely buried in college football odds.
With Pruitt out, what candidates might Tennessee target?
With Fulmer “not expected” to make the hire, per Thamel, and Peyton Manning expected to have a "big role," this search could be fun. Will the Vols hire Fulmer’s replacement first? If so, will he or she get the final say over the head coach? We don’t know and are left to speculate on potential head-coaching candidates.
According to John Currie’s communications, Dan Mullen was the top target three years ago. That was before Chip Kelly opted for UCLA over Florida, which promoted the Gators to hire Mullen from Mississippi State. Now at Florida, Mullen isn’t going anywhere, nor are Leach or Schiano. Those are three names we can eliminate now.
Tennessee also flirted with Mike Gundy (for the millionth time) and Dave Doeren. After Currie couldn’t reach an agreement with Gundy, he focused on Doeren, albeit briefly before ignoring text messages from Doeren’s agent, who said Doeren was “fired up” about the job. Doeren received a new deal from North Carolina State the next day. It’s highly possible both Gundy and Doeren could make another shortlist, as could current Vols' associate head coach and receivers coach Tee Martin.
Neal Brown might be in play. He’s only 11-11 in two seasons at West Virginia but had big success at Troy, is a former SEC assistant (Kentucky offensive coordinator) and has recruited the entire region, as has Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson. A former Tennessee assistant, Clawson did well at Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green, before arriving in Winston-Salem in 2014. He’s succeeded by Wake Forest standards (40-45 overall) and could provide more stability than volatility.
Luke Fickell passed on Michigan State and is line to land one of the best jobs in college football if he keeps winning at Cincinnati. He’s also never coached outside of Ohio and doesn’t need to jump at a mid-level Power Five job now. Still, Tennessee may inquire and make a huge offer to one of the most sought-after Group of Five coaches ever. Louisiana's Billy Napier is also worth mentioning, along with Liberty's Hugh Freeze, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Charlotte’s Will Healy, and UAB’s Bill Clark.
Others to consider: Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, and Indiana head coach Tom Allen.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.