Tennessee football coaching search: 14 names from Hugh Freeze to Tom Herman to Jamey Chadwell

Blake Toppmeyer Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause on Monday, ending his tenure after three seasons. He leaves behind a program under investigation into whether it committed major NCAA violations related to recruiting and impermissible benefits.

Tennessee's last coaching search went so awry that athletics director John Currie was fired and replaced with Phillip Fulmer before it reached conclusion.

Fulmer, who was not implicated in the Pruitt investigation, will not take part in the upcoming coaching search. He announced Monday he will retire after UT hires an AD to replace him, and he wants his successor to choose the next football coach.  

WHO REPLACES FULMER? Top candidates for next Vols athletics director 

EXCLUSIVE: After firing Pruitt, Tennessee chancellor vows football will operate 'with integrity'

Here are some names to monitor in the search for a new coach:

Hugh Freeze

Current job: Liberty head coach

The skinny: Disregard Freeze’s checkered past off the field, and he's a highly qualified candidate. He’s a proven winner, having elevated Mississippi to national prominence before his tenure ended because of matters not related to his win-loss record.

Freeze got a second chance when Liberty hired him in 2019 to steer its program as it entered its first season as a full-fledged FBS member. Freeze’s offensive prowess quickly made Liberty relevant. The Flames went 8-5, including a bowl victory, in his first season, before reaching the Top 25 this year thanks to road wins over the ACC’s Syracuse and Virginia Tech en route to a 10-1 record.

Freeze, 51, knows how to recruit and develop quarterbacks. He has ties to Tennessee, having started his coaching career at Briarcrest Christian near Memphis.

Ah, but the checkered past.

Freeze resigned ahead of the 2017 season amid NCAA scandal and after calls to escorts. Had Freeze not resigned, Ole Miss would have fired him “for moral turpitude,” Rebels athletics director Ross Bjork said at the time, after the university found “a pattern” of “troubling” conduct on Freeze’s university-issued cellphone.

Later that year, Ole Miss got hit with NCAA sanctions for violations tied to a years-long recruiting scandal, the majority of which occurred under Freeze's watch. The university had stood by Freeze throughout the NCAA investigation, but the revelations of illicit phone calls did him in.

Hiring Freeze would mark the pinnacle of hypocrisy after Tennessee scurried out of its agreed-upon deal with Greg Schiano in 2017 because of years-old, unproven, hearsay allegations about what Schiano might have known about pedophile Jerry Sandusky’s conduct at Penn State.

Consider resume only, though, and it’s hard to top Freeze, who beat Nick Saban twice while coaching Ole Miss.

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Tom Herman

Current job: Unemployed

The skinny: Herman, 45, knows all about big expectations. He was fired in January after going 7-3 in his fourth season at Texas.

His career winning percentage suggests he'll be in high demand. Herman is 54-22 in six seasons, including two at Houston before taking the Longhorns job. 

Herman knows about offense, too. The Cincinnati native was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for three seasons at Ohio State. His teams have ranked in the national top 20 in scoring offense in three of his six seasons as a coach, and he never has ranked lower than No. 52.

Herman has never coached in the SEC, but his extensive history coaching in Texas — along with his two head coaching stints in the state, he has been an assistant at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice — could yield an interesting recruiting opportunity in the talent-rich state.

Texas owes Herman a $15 million buyout, so he can be picky about his next opportunity.

Billy Napier

Current job: Louisiana head coach

The skinny: Napier’s career is on upward trajectory, and he seems destined for a bigger stage after a successful three seasons at Louisiana, where his record is 28-11. He was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2019, when his Ragin’ Cajuns went 11-3, including the program’s first bowl victory since the 2014 season.

Napier, 41, has a well-rounded resume. He was an offensive coordinator for Arizona State, and he has been an assistant at Alabama, Colorado State and Clemson.

Napier has deep ties to the region. He was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, and grew up in Chatsworth, Georgia. He played quarterback at Furman in South Carolina. His father, Bill, was a longtime high school coach in Georgia.

His buyout for leaving Louisiana is $750,000.

Jamey Chadwell

Current job: Coastal Carolina head coach 

The skinny: Chadwell is one of the most exciting names in the coaching world. His Coastal Carolina offense averaged close to 37.2 points in 2020 after averaging more than 30 in 2019. The Chanticleers finished 11-1 in Chadwell’s second season as coach, concluding with a 37-34 loss to Liberty in the Cure Bowl. He also was the interim head coach in 2017.

Chadwell has never had a position on a Power Five coaching staff. He also had NCAA issues from violations such as using ineligible players while he was the head coach at Charleston Southern, according to the Charleston Post and Courier

Chadwell played quarterback at East Tennessee State, then started his coaching career with the Buccaneers from 2000-03. He has spent his whole career in Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Chadwell's buyout was just $150,000 before Coastal Carolina announced he signed a contract extension that runs through the 2027 season on Dec. 16. It's unclear how that extension might have changed his buyout. The school has not released financial details but said the potential annual value, with all incentives met, would be the highest in the Sun Belt.

Gus Malzahn

Current job: Unemployed

The skinny: Malzahn's 68-35 record in eight seasons at Auburn wasn't enough to keep him employed as the Tigers' coach. Auburn fired Malzahn on Dec. 13, and he's owed a buyout of $21.45 million.

Malzahn's record and his three career victories against Alabama might sound better to Tennessee, which has lost 14 straight to the Crimson Tide.

The SEC loves to recycle coaches, and coaches worse than Malzahn, 55, have received a second chance.

He never has had a losing season. Once thought of as an innovative offensive mind who embraced an up-tempo offense, Malzahn's Auburn offenses grew stale the past few seasons. Malzahn is at his best when he has an offense that can pile up rushing yards, led by a quarterback who challenges defenses with his legs.

Auburn won the BCS National Championship Game during the 2010 season with Malzahn as offensive coordinator and Cam Newton at quarterback, and the Tigers were the national runner-up in 2013, Malzahn's first year as coach.

Luke Fickell

Current job: Cincinnati head coach

The skinny: Hiring a coach from Cincinnati might be a trigger for Vols fans after the Butch Jones era. But the program has been a breeding ground for big-time head coaches after sending Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly to Michigan State and Notre Dame, respectively.

Fickell is up next and will be a popular candidate for just about any Power Five job that comes open as long as he is at Cincinnati. The 47-year-old won 11 games in 2018 and '19 after a 4-8 season in his first campaign at UC. Then 2020 was even better. Cincinnati won the AAC and finished 9-1, falling 24-21 to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

The Bearcats have finished in the AP Top 25 in three straight seasons.

Fickell has been fussy with opportunities to move along. He’s been reported as a candidate at the likes of Florida State, Michigan State and West Virginia, but he signed a contract extension prior to the start of the 2020 season that runs through the 2026 season.

Fickell, who was 6-7 as the interim head coach at Ohio State in 2011, does not have any ties to the SEC. But he’s a proven defensive-minded coach with recruiting ties to the talent rich-Cincinnati area. 

His buyout for leaving is $3.5 million.

Kevin Steele

Current job: Tennessee defensive assistant

The skinny: Tennessee wanted Steele's services badly enough that it hired him as an assistant coach days before firing Pruitt. 

Was UT working in reverse?: Hire the new coach under disguise. Fire the current coach. Unveil the disguise and reveal the new coach.

It's unlikely. Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman told Knox News on Monday she will allow the next athletics director to hire UT's next football coach.

Steele, who will serve as acting head coach until a hire is made, was a finalist for the Vols' job when Fulmer hired Pruitt in December 2017. Steele is a UT alumnus who was on the roster in 1978-79 before working two stints as an assistant under Johnny Majors while Fulmer also was on staff.

Steele, 62, earned a strong reputation as a defensive coordinator at four SEC schools. Most recently, he was Malzahn's coordinator for five seasons, during which time Auburn ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense four times.

Steele flopped in his lone tenure as a head coach, going 9-36 at Baylor from 1999-2002. But SEC schools are fond of offering a second chance in the big chair.

Tony Elliott

Current job: Clemson offensive coordinator 

The skinny: Elliott was Clemson's co-offensive coordinator alongside Jeff Scott from 2015-19 until Scott left to become the head coach at USF, and Elliott moved up a rung. Elliott could duplicate Scott's jump to head coach in the near future.

The 41-year-old has never been a head coach, but he has helped orchestrate some elite Clemson offensive units. He was the Clemson running backs coach from 2011-14 before rising to the co-offensive coordinator role. He now holds the offensive coordinator role outright.

Elliott, who won the 2017 Broyles Award, has done some of his best recruiting in Florida and Georgia, but has dabbled across the region. 

Doug Marrone

Current job: Unemployed

The skinny: Here's a name from the past. Marrone, 56, coached tight ends and offensive tackles for Fulmer at Tennessee in 2001. Here's another Tennessee connection: His wife, Helen, is the daughter of former Middle Tennessee State coach Boots Donnelly

Marrone's track record for success leaves something to be desired. He has won fewer than 40% of his games across 11 years as a head coach at Syracuse, the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

He led the Jaguars to the AFC Championship in 2017 before following with three straight losing seasons, including a 1-15 mark in 2020 that cost him his job.

The Bronx native went 25-25 across four seasons at Syracuse from 2009-12.

A Marrone hire would've looked better the last time Tennessee's job came open in 2017.

Matt Campbell

Current job: Iowa State head coach 

The skinny: Campbell has a decade of experience as a head coach between Toledo and Iowa State, with success at both spots and a career 69-43 record. He guided Iowa State to a fourth consecutive winning season after a 3-9 mark in his first year there.

He won two Big 12 Coach of the Year awards in his first four seasons in Ames, where he has a lot of job security and good will.

Campbell often is discussed as a candidate to move to a premier program, but he hasn't drifted. He signed a contract extension at Iowa State after an 8-5 season in 2017 that runs through 2025. He also reportedly declined an interview with the New York Jets in 2018.

The Cyclones are a dark horse playoff contender for 2021, and leaving a program he has positioned for success to inherit Tennessee's situation would come as a surprise.

The 41-year-old Ohio native has spent his entire career coaching in the Midwest. He has a $5 million buyout.

Brent Venables

Current job: Clemson defensive coordinator 

The skinny: Venables is one of the nation’s most proven coordinators. He has led Clemson’s defense since 2004 and has been an associate head coach on Dabo Swinney’s staff since 2018.

He won the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant, in 2016. Clemson capped that season with a national championship. Venables' impressive resume dates back to being co-defensive coordinator on Oklahoma’s 2000 national title team.

Venables enjoys a comfortable situation at Clemson, where he has full control over the defense and the Tigers are among the nation’s best programs.

Does Venables want to leave to have his own program for the first time? If he does, the 50-year-old always will have opportunities to do so. But it’ll have to be an attractive opportunity.

Like the other coordinators on this list, Venables would not have a buyout for leaving to become a head coach.

Bill Clark

Current job: UAB head coach

The skinny: Clark, 52, isn’t the splashiest name listed here, but he’s a winner with roots in the South.

Clark was UAB’s coach when the program was terminated after the 2014 season. A wave of public support and fundraising brought the program back, and Clark remained the coach. The program relaunched in 2017, and the Blazers have logged four straight winning seasons. That included a Conference USA championship in 2018, when Clark earned the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award.

Clark is a native of Anniston, Alabama, and he coached for nearly two decades in the Alabama high school ranks before becoming South Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2008. Clark’s first college head coaching job came in 2013 in the FCS at Jacksonville State, his alma mater.

Clark’s biggest drawback? He has no Power Five experience.

Clark’s buyout for leaving UAB is $1.25 million.

Josh Heupel

Current job: Central Florida coach

The skinny: Heupel is 28-8 in three season's as UCF's coach, building on the success of predecessor Scott Frost. A former Oklahoma quarterback who was a Heisman Trophy runner-up, Heupel's teams are known for scoring. UCF has ranked in the top eight nationally in scoring offense in each of his three seasons.

He also was Missouri's offensive coordinator for two seasons, and the Tigers' 37.5 points per game in 2017 paced the SEC. At Missouri, Heupel developed quarterback Drew Lock and stewarded an up-tempo system that relied heavily on run-pass option plays.

Heupel, 42, coached at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops from 2006-14. Heupel and Jay Norvell, who is now Nevada's coach, spent four seasons as Oklahoma's co-offensive coordinators before Stoops fired them. Heupel became Utah State's offensive coordinator for a season before heading to Missouri.

Heupel's buyout is about $3.5 million.

Scott Satterfield

Current job: Louisville head coach

The skinny: Everything was going grand for Satterfield, 48, until this year. Louisville finished 4-7 in his second season, and some Cardinals fans soured on him after he flirted with South Carolina's opening.

Nonetheless, the North Carolina native has a 63-36 career record, buoyed by his six-year stint at Appalachian State, where he won three straight Sun Belt titles. He was named the Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2018 before being named the ACC Coach of the Year the following year for his eight-win rookie season at Louisville.

Satterfield’s teams are known for their offense. He played quarterback at Appalachian State.

Satterfield has no SEC experience, but neither did Eliah Drinkwitz, who became Missouri’s coach after one season coaching Appalachian State as Satterfield’s successor.

Satterfield's buyout is $3.5 million.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com 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.