New Tennessee athletic director Danny White has drastically changed the outlook of the Volunteers’ head coaching search. And if you’re a Vols fan, Josh Heupel is a reason to feel good.
Heupel isn’t a candidate for UT, but he’s proof White can adjust during a coaching search and still deliver. Perhaps more impressive than White’s hiring of Scott Frost to UCF in 2015 (19-7 in two seasons, including a 13-0 campaign) or Lance Liepold to Buffalo in ‘14 (37 wins and three bowls) is Heupel to the Knights in ‘17. Frost and Liepold were top choices. That might not happen in Knoxville.
When Frost left UCF for Nebraska, White’s top targets (Kevin Sumlin, Neal Brown) didn’t end up in Orlando. Heupel, then the Missouri O.C., said yes, and has a 28-8 record with the Knights since. White’s current task at a SEC program damaged by years of administrative malfeasance is going to require a shrewd evaluation of the market, and possibly a hard sell to a quality candidate.
How White Changes Tennessee’s Search
Just last week a coach who was interviewed during White’s Buffalo search complimented his process and football acumen to me, describing Tennessee’s new A.D. as “decisive and real.”
This is a reporter-y way of saying top candidates now know they won’t have to deal with Crazy Tennessee. They won’t have to deal with former A.D. Phil Fulmer, they won’t have to second guess which corner of the Vol booster network is actually too involved in the administration, and they’ll work for someone with a sterling record of hiring coaches who, based on his reputation, will communicate the reality of the situation in Knoxville with regard to the ongoing NCAA investigation transparently.
At this point I fully expect White to poach a sitting FBS head coach with a contract that’s logical with regard to what’s coming from the NCAA. I also believe White will try as hard as possible to land a name big enough to energize both donors and rank-and-file to sustain yet another rebuilding period in Knoxville.
Let’s break the field into three categories: The best available, the names mentioned publicly, and sitting head coaches I believe White might try to poach:
College Football’s ‘Big 3’
Of the sitting head coaches considered to be the best available for any job — Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Louisiana’s Billy Napier — Campbell and Fickell weren’t options for UT before White arrived, and I believe that’s still true after. I’ve been told Fickell has already communicated to UT he’s happy with the Bearcats. To that end, I feel confident saying Fickell isn’t leaving UC for anything less than Notre Dame or Ohio State. Maybe, maybe, if Penn State opened (see below) he’d have a talk, but the man with six children seems destined for Catholicism’s highest profile American job.
Napier is the wild card here. He was born in Cookeville, Tenn., and grew up in Chatsworth, Ga., literally just over the state line. He also just walked away from South Carolina and Auburn, a story that winds down different paths depending on who you talk to. At face value Auburn (even in the Saban Era) is inarguably a better gig than sanction-battered Tennessee, but context might be key here. White almost certainly wouldn’t shackle Napier with staff demands or caveats, specifically Kevin Steele in both situations.
Napier would be a massive win for UT. They can push a narrative that he turned down other league jobs to come “home” while preaching patience during the rebuild. He’s a Saban tree coach familiar with the SEC sausage factory, but unlike Pruitt he’s an offensive guy with head coaching experience.
Names Mentioned Publicly
White has a reputation for defying media predictions. He mentioned this specifically last week.
Right now I’m convinced the three most-mentioned candidates — Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, SMU’s Sonny Dykes and Clemson OC Tony Elliott — have been legitimately vetted but will not get the job unless White has to make a third or fourth choice.
Of the three, Fleck is the likeliest here. His media-friendly personality would bridge what could be a substantial gap between now and whenever a post-sanctions UT can be competitive again. He’s also a sitting head coach who took a MAC program to the New Year’s Six and won 11 games at Minnesota in 2019.
Do I think these names are an intentional smokescreen? Kind of? I don’t want to say yes, because that would imply these coaches aren’t quality candidates or that they’re being used. But I do believe White is using the luxury of a public list to distract from attempting a bigger “get.”
Sitting P5 Coaches Tennessee Might Try To Poach
Scott Satterfield, Louisville — I’m cheating a little bit here because I’ve seen Satt mentioned for the job in some places, but nowhere near as much as Fleck, Dykes, and Elliott. His first Cardinals team finished 8-5, but Louisville finished 4-7 in 2020. Take 2020 records for whatever you want; I tend to ignore them, but not everyone in the industry does. This is where I mention that Satterfield was tied to the South Carolina opening this past fall and ended up back at UL with no extension or raise from A.D. Vince Tyra. I don’t think that relationship is in the best place. Satt would jump at the UT job, but I don’t think he qualifies as a “wow” hiring right now.
Dave Doeren, NC State — Had Phil Fulmer run this search instead of White, Doeren would likely be at the top of this list. He was part of the “second-half” search Fulmer ran in 2017 after former A.D. John Currie was fired that ended with Pruitt (he was originally vetted by Currie). He also almost got the Ole Miss job over then-interim Matt Luke the same year. The Wolfpack finished 8-4 in 2020 and looked better than most in the industry expected and uh, yeah… I can’t see this happening under White. I’m ruling Doeren out because of his popularity with the previous regime (dumb logic, but popular in this industry) and his lack of national star power.
Neal Brown, West Virginia — Brown has SEC experience as an assistant at Kentucky (and former player). He beat Ed Orgeron’s LSU during a rebuild of Troy, which means he has a win over a SEC national title winner more recently than Tennessee. He’s .500 at West Virginia, but they’re trending upward; multiple Big 12 assistants have remarked to me that Brown seems to be ahead of schedule rebuilding WVU. His name was floated late in the Auburn search, but the gig went to Bryan Harsin, who is repped by the same agency as Brown. I’m honestly not sure if UT supporters would view this as a “big get,” but Brown is popular among A.D.s and industry people.
James Franklin, Penn State — How bad was 2020 in Happy Valley? That remains to be determined. Hypothetically, let’s assume one or both parties here want to move on (and let’s all pause and realize how healthy the Cal / Dykes divorce turned out to be). Franklin agonized over leaving Vanderbilt in 2013 not because the Commodores are equal to PSU, but because he realized the potential of recruiting and developing in the SEC. His last two recruiting classes at Vandy were ranked higher than Penn State’s by 247 (2012: VU No. 46, Penn State No. 47; 2013: VU No. 25, Penn State No. 33).
Also — right or wrong — when you’re winning nine games a season at the toughest job in the best league you can’t help but think about how good you’d be at a power program. Is Tennessee a power program in the SEC? Not right now. Was Penn State in the Big Ten when he got there? Not at all, but they’re a solid No. 2 or 3 now. Franklin’s persona would apply well to the road ahead in Knoxville.
The reality check is that Penn State just extended Franklin last year with a deal that comes to over $7 million a year including incentives. That seems way too steep for UT to match at the moment, especially if they end up having to pay Pruitt some or all of his buyout.
Mike Norvell, Florida State — This depends on what you think about Florida State’s off-field turmoil. If you’re inclined to believe it’s the worst case scenario, it’s not at all improbable that Norvell thinks the same and wants out. As head coach of Memphis he was vetted by several SEC programs. Some didn’t love him and vice versa. With regard to optics, if you’re Tennessee you’re not hiring the Memphis head coach, you’re hiring Florida State’s. And if you’re a member of #FSUTwitter, my real name is William Elliott Jr. and this is my Twitter handle.
Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss — Sure, why not. I read Twitter. I know what the lunatic fringe wants and I don’t have to explain myself.
RYAN NANNI, BANNER SOCIETY EDITOR: Steven, that is your actual job.
Fine. He fits every requirement: Sitting P5 head coach, offensive minded, great recruiting. Even has league experience. And he would give Tennessee the satisfaction of snatching a SEC head coach, and something akin to closure after Kiffin walked out on the Vols after the 2009 seasons. This move is unlikely, potentially hilarious and would be amazing in every good and bad way imaginable. I can’t decide if it’s too wild a notion for White, or just what’s needed to make him look like a kingpin.