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The current state of Tennessee football and Hugh Freeze are made for each other

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Don’t ask me what happens after that

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Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

After Tennessee’s 30-17 loss to Auburn on Saturday, Jeremy Pruitt is 15-17 through 32 games, the same record as Butch Jones through his first 32 games in Knoxville. He’s also lost five in a row (by double digits!), the program’s longest streak of defeats since 1988. Those five L’s came immediately after a winning streak of eight games dating back to the 2019 season. Streaky, huh?

It’s fair to mention that other Vol coaches have relied on non-conference games, missing in the 2020 pandemic schedule, to grab desperation wins. Derek Dooley actually stopped a four-game skid in each of his three seasons with November wins over Group of Five schools. Of course, Pruitt isn’t always great in those games, either.

Even if you throw out all of 2020 as a Covid-19 mulligan, there’s still little to indicate Pruitt has found solid footing in Knoxville, or that he can recruit and develop akin to Florida or Georgia if given more time. Rationally, Pruitt looks exactly like what most rival coaches in the SEC describe him as: A once-and-future defensive coordinator currently being paid SEC head coach money, because you don’t turn down SEC head coach money.

And yet, the Vols saw fit to hand Pruitt an extension after 2019, which – after last week’s news that athletic director and former head coach Phil Fulmer “quietly” got one as well – is now only the second-most confusing payment made by Tennessee athletics in 2020.

So unless Jones is hired elsewhere as a head coach after this season to offset his ongoing buyout, firing Pruitt would create roughly $20 million in dead money coaching salaries for this program. This mountain of debt is likely why Vol assistants refused pay cuts: If you’re an employee without the security of a contract watching your bosses mismanage the operation, get all of yours while you can. That stupidly tall stack of bad-after-good cash is almost as high as the magic number we use to label Auburn boosters as “crazy” for constantly wanting to pull the trigger on Gus Malzahn’s buyout (currently down to a mere $21.5 million pittance after December).

So is it not fair to label Tennessee as crazier — or just ... dumber? — to be paying almost that amount to two coaches, and with so much less to show for it? Malzahn has won his division three times, the conference once, been to a national title game, and beat Bama three times. The Vols haven’t done any of those things since Fulmer was coach.

For clarity: I’m not suggesting that we diminish our portrayal of Auburn’s booster corps as anything less than a batshit honky cabal with the economic prowess of a state lotto winner in a jet ski dealership. NOR IS THIS A CHALLENGE, ANGRY AUBURN FANS. PLEASE DO NOT RECEIVE THIS COMMUNICATION AS A CHALLENGE. PLEASE DO NOT APPROACH MY FAMILY IN CHURCH.

I’m just saying the Plainsmen clearly aren’t alone here in trying to finance a Sea-Doo without any credit history. Hell, just this season we joked (“joked”) about how the SEC’s awful officiating was actually designed to keep Auburn boosters from paying out Gus’ $20 million-plus buyout during a pandemic and economic recession, and then South Carolina up and did that for $13 million, making them exactly 65 percent as garish as we assumed Auburn to be.

The Tennessee message board community pulled double duty Saturday night, watching Auburn beat their team while becoming emotionally invested in a Jim Harbaugh Michigan team (gross) to justify storming the gates over Greg Schiano during the last cycle.

And look: Not to compliment or defend this or any other mob, but it’s OK to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time: Tennessee is woefully managed and Greg Schiano was still a really bad idea for the program and should not have been hired. It’s called a paradox, Vol Twitter. Please don’t burn down my house.

Hugh Freeze just wants you to know that Hugh Freeze forgives you for remembering that Hugh Freeze is Hugh Freeze

Tennessee fans’ current most popular fixation in this, their second decade of “EVERYTHING IS FINE IT’S JUST A MINOR REACTOR LEAK WE CAN PAINT OVER THAT PART” mentality is Hugh Freeze, the former Ole Miss head coach currently running an 8-1 team at Liberty and also currently engaged in a pillowy soft-focus public relations redemption tour both on and off the record with national media. I’ve never seen a G5 coach so obviously mugging in the press for a new job as Freeze. I’d question Liberty’s feelings on this matter, if not for the fact their leadership has other issues regarding personnel numbers at the moment.

It’s totally understandable that the Vols are done with Pruitt; it’s somewhat telling that Tennessee fans by and large haven’t touted any of the available, nationally coveted rising stars in head coaching over Freeze. When “big” jobs are thought to be open, fans and boosters debate names like Matt Campbell and Luke Fickell. Down South there’s always talk about Billy Napier, himself a former Alabama assistant who has SEC recruiting experience. Instead, fans seem to have exhausted rational thought and its mandatory patience for the quickest fix available.

Which is … Freeze? I just assume the Vols are blinded by the fact that Ole Miss beat Nick Saban’s Alabama twice when they haven’t even done it once. Never mind the obvious scandals; on the football field, Freeze’s Ole Miss teams also tripped, gaffed, and sometimes imploded in a very Tennessee fashion. The same year they beat Alabama, they lost to Memphis. The other same year they beat Alabama, they were shut out by Bret Bielema’s Arkansas.

Alas, Freeze remains a master at stoking conversations about Hugh Freeze. Before taking the Liberty job in December of 2018, he managed to surface as *the* candidate for offensive coordinator hires at multiple schools (Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, and Tennessee!) at the same time. I might add that in 2018, all of those schools had head coaches repped by CAA, Freeze’s agency. I might add that after the fact, more than one of those coaches admitted privately that Freeze was never, ever a serious consideration for OC. Funny how that works!

At present, Freeze is spending his apparently abundant free time countering any joke, comment or criticism (fair or otherwise) of his career with his usual offering of blood-of-the-lamb forgiveness to the person who is being “mean” to him. There’s a game we play in the working press: Mention Hugh Freeze on social media and see how long before Hugh Freeze himself reaches out to you. It can be at any time, dating back to his early days at Ole Miss when it was obvious to local media that someone, very likely Freeze himself, searches his own name on social media daily and then seeks to argue with total strangers online instead of, you know, doing any other part of his job as head coach of a SEC program.

I somehow doubt Nick Saban has ever done this. Nick Saban might not know what Twitter is, even today. Try to imagine Nick Saban chiding you in the DMs with some Hillbilly Joycean yarn about working in a West Virginia gas station because you called his secondary “lemon booty” or something.

It’s been 13 years since Tennessee last won its division and maintained any national relevance, and in that time its fan base has, understandably, both metastasized with rage and fractured its original internal loyalties along the lines of various power brokers in the Big Orange network. Introducing the Hugh Freeze I know into an ecosystem blinded to its own attributes, failings and potential by palace intrigue and big dumb booster feelings would create the single greatest rubbernecking opportunity in the history of this sport. Anyone remotely interested in football or Southern anthropology would be compelled to slow down and hang their jaws at the fiery detritus of this potential wreck.

Which is to say: I live in Nashville, and have FOIA rights like any other state resident, so I wholeheartedly endorse Hugh Freeze to Tennessee.

Meanwhile, South Carolina will not be hiring Freeze, no matter how often he feigns the nymphet humility of a pre-teen pageant hopeful about the possibility. This is the point where I mention that the University of South Carolina’s President, Robert Caslen, is a former superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and was a highly decorated Lieutenant General in the Army for over 40 years, earning honors that included three Bronze Stars. He’s also the co-author of the recent release, “Character Edge: Leading and Winning With Integrity.”

I cannot tell you who will be the next head coach at South Carolina. The name with the most “traction” in gossip circles at this moment is Louisville’s Scott Satterfield, recently of Appalachian State. Trailing behind him along this imaginary racetrack rail are Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian and Napier.

But I can tell you that I briefly met Caslen during my embed with Army in 2016, which is as much of a life-changing, or at least perception-altering experience as a college football reporter can have.

I can also tell you that I probably know more about the NCAA’s Mississippi Saga than any other member of the working media. I made a TV show about it. I would pay a large sum of my own money to watch Robert Caslen size up Hugh Freeze in person, let alone employ him.