Analysis: Kevin Steele gives Tennessee Vols options despite Jeremy Pruitt's unclear fate

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

For the past month, Tennessee has had two ways to end speculation that it will fire coach Jeremy Pruitt.

UT could announce it is retaining Pruitt and that he has the administration’s support. That’s the conventional option. Tennessee doesn’t often embrace the conventional.

Or it could remain silent but allow Pruitt to fill staff openings and hire assistants to multi-year contracts, an implicit sign that there will be not be a coaching change.

Tennessee on Tuesday announced the hiring of SEC veteran Kevin Steele as a defensive assistant coach to a two-year contract worth $450,000 annually.

So, case closed – Pruitt is safe, right?

Not so fast.

ADAMS:Tennessee hiring of Kevin Steele indicates Jeremy Pruitt era is ending 

If Pruitt continues hiring assistants, that would signify Tennessee isn’t firing him. But merely adding Steele still leaves UT multiple options:

Option A: Tennessee fires Pruitt. Steele is a tailormade candidate to serve as interim coach while UT searches for Pruitt’s replacement, and he could become a fallback head coaching candidate. After all, athletics director Phillip Fulmer considered Steele in December 2017 as a finalist to be Tennessee’s coach before hiring Pruitt.

If Tennessee fires Pruitt and makes an outside hire, Steele could remain on staff. He’s been a defensive coordinator at four SEC schools, and Tennessee is getting him at a bargain rate, thanks to Auburn paying Steele severance for the next two years.

Option B: Pruitt’s tenure continues into a fourth season. Steele coaches Tennessee’s inside linebackers, taking over for Brian Niedermeyer, who is not expected to be retained after his contract expires Jan. 31. Steele also could become UT's defensive coordinator if Derrick Ansley exits.

Steele is a UT alumnus who was on the Vols roster in 1978-79 before working multiple stints in the 1980s as an assistant coach under Johnny Majors, during which time Fulmer also was on staff.

If Pruitt survives a 3-7 season and an ongoing investigation into whether his program violated NCAA rules involving recruiting and impermissible benefits, it’s understandable why he’d want Steele on his staff.

Auburn ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense four times during Steele’s five seasons as defensive coordinator.

Steele’s reputation is such that he was the nation’s top-paid assistant coach in 2020, earning $2.5 million. He became available after Auburn fired coach Gus Malzahn in December. Steele enjoyed some internal support to replace Malzahn. But AU hired Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, and Steele was not retained.

Steele and Pruitt have a longstanding relationship, and they worked together at Alabama in 2007-08.

The motivations of Fulmer and Chancellor Donde Plowman, who signed off on the deal, are less clear.

Imagine if Tennessee fired Pruitt and the next coach didn’t retain Steele. UT would owe Steele $900,000 in severance. Of course, that’s standard procedure at Tennessee. This is the same university that is set to shell out $837,000 to Jimmy Brumbaugh, fired in October after four games as defensive line coach.

Murkier still is why Steele would come aboard in an undefined role rather than commit to landing a defensive coordinator position. He’s overqualified to be a position coach.

Steele was the CEO of Auburn’s defense under the offensive-minded Malzahn. At Tennessee, Pruitt is the big cheese of the defense, regardless of coordinator.

While the potential reward for Steele remains unclear, this is a low-risk move for him.

Regardless of how the next few weeks unfold at Tennessee, Steele is guaranteed to make at least $2.5 million in each of the next two seasons, thanks to his Auburn buyout. By joining Tennessee’s staff, that eases Auburn’s financial burden, but Steele’s pay will remain the same. It is now just split between two sources.

Even if Tennessee fires Pruitt and the next coach does not retain Steele, he’d still enjoy his full buyout.

If you’re wondering why Tennessee is paying Steele $450,000 rather than $45,000, which would keep Auburn on the hook for more of the tab, Steele’s Auburn contract outlined that he would risk his buyout if he did not negotiate future employment salaries in good faith.

It’s been more than a week since Knox News requested comment from Plowman about Pruitt’s status for the 2021 season. Mum is the word.

Tennessee still doesn’t appear to have decided if it wants Pruitt as its coach, but Steele’s fresh two-year contract made clear that UT would like Steele to be part of its future.

In what capacity? That remains unsettled.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.