Two coordinators for SEC schools in 2017 got their first head coaching jobs in 2018. Somehow, both ended up eventually leading Tennessee football. The order in which they were selected, though, is now painful for Vol fans to witness.
After the Vols’ disastrous coaching search that led to Phillip Fulmer ousting John Currie in a coup as athletic director, they settled on Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Missouri Tigers offensive coordinator Josh Heupel became head coach of UCF Knights.
A regrade of the 2017 search by Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports shows that the hire of Pruitt got a better grade (B) than the hire of Heupel (C-). Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee football ended in an F, and Heupel’s UCF tenure ended in a B with him being hired by the Vols. Here’s a bit of what Fornelli said about both.
Considering the carnival atmosphere of the coaching search that found him, Tennessee hiring Jeremy Pruitt seemed like a win at the time. He had been the defensive coordinator at Alabama and was an adept recruiter. Unfortunately, whether it’s on Pruitt or others, a hiring made amid a circus seemed doomed from the start.
Heupel started in the unenviable position of replacing Scott Frost at UCF, but he did pretty well, all things considered.
Looking back, hindsight is 20/20 but it’s painful to see that the Vols may have delayed their return to prominence by three years. Heupel’s success at UCF and his early success on Rocky Top has fans a lot more excited than they ever were under Pruitt.
We know the failures of Pruitt from the poor play on the field to the NCAA investigation. It’s just crazy to think that Heupel could have gotten the job. Also, don’t forget, since both were SEC coordinators, it’s not like Heupel was less qualified.
Now, to be fair, Pruitt came with a great background and a ton of praise from other coaches. He had worked under Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Richt. Heupel, meanwhile, was fired by the Oklahoma Sooners in 2014 and was resurrecting his career in 2017. Still, seeing how it played out hurt.
To be fair to Fulmer on this one, the results of this show there weren’t many options at the time that were obvious on their face. Only three hires had a current grade and an original grade at a B or above, and there were no A and A hires.
Most notable was Jimbo Fisher to the Texas A&M Aggies, but quite honestly, the Vols couldn’t pay Fisher at the time what A&M was willing to pay him. Billy Napier to the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns was the other one, and he’s now with the Florida Gators, but nobody saw him as a Power Five hire at the time.
Then there’s Dan Mullen, and the Vols actually did try to pursue him. It just wasn’t successful. When you break that all down, yes, Pruitt was a failure, but nobody had any way of knowing who was going to work out. Scott Frost was considered an A hire by the Nebraska Cornhuskers at the time, and now he’s a D.
All of these shows that coaching hires are extremely hard to make. Tennessee football had a weird situation in 2017. However, both coordinators eventually became head coaches of UT. The one they rejected then appears to be the one they should have hired.