Many Vol fans want Tennessee to make a “splash hire” as they search for a new head football coach. But Tennessee’s history has shown that a big time hire like that is incredibly rare.
Dating all the way back to the 1950s, the Vols have rarely hired away a coach from another Power Five school who had success at their previous stop. Of the Vols’ last nine full-time head coaches (excluding interims), only three were hired as a sitting head coach at a Power Five school. And one of those head coaches was arguably the only “splash hire” Tennessee has made over the last 60-plus years.
Johnny Majors was the head coach of Pittsburgh when Tennessee brought him in to coach the Vols in 1977. And he wasn’t just the coach there; he had taken Pittsburgh to unbelievable heights. Majors had just come off a perfect 12-0 season with Pitt in 1976 when the Vols hired him. He would go on to earn a 116-62-8 record in 15-plus seasons with the Vols.
But every other hire the Vols have made dating back to 1955 has either been a promotion within, hiring a former player, or hiring someone with a less than stellar résumé.
Butch Jones, the Vols’ most recent hire, was the head coach of Cincinnati when Tennessee hired him. The Bearcats were in the Big East at the time, and that conference was still considered an “Automatic Qualifying” conference for BCS bowl games at the time. So Jones technically counts as having been a hire from a “Power Five” school, though his track record pales in comparison to Majors’.
Tennessee’s hire before Jones was Derek Dooley. He was also a sitting head coach when the Vols hired him, but he was at Louisiana Tech. Lane Kiffin came before Dooley, and Kiffin had been fired from the Oakland Raiders in 2008 before the Vols hired him prior to the 2009 season.
And, of course, before Kiffin was Phillip Fulmer.
Fulmer was a former player and was already on staff when he was tabbed to be the Vols’ head coach. Fulmer was an interim head coach during the 1992 season and eventually was given the full-time job in 1993 despite tons of controversy around the decision. Johnny Majors had been the head coach since 1977, and many believed Fulmer forced him out.
However you look at it, Fulmer became Tennessee’s head coach by being promoted within. And he was a former player. He had no head coaching experience prior to taking the job.
Majors was before Fulmer, but before Majors was Bill Battle. Just like Fulmer, Battle was promoted within when he was given the job of being Tennessee’s head coach. He was an assistant with UT from 1966-69 before being promoted to head coach in 1970. He had also played under Bear Bryant.
Before Battle came Doug Dickey. When Tennessee gave Dickey the job, all he had to his track record was eight years as an assistant at Arkansas as well as playing for Florida. Once again, not a “big time” hire.
Jim McDonald was only a head coach for a season for the Vols. He was an assistant on UT’s staff from 1955-62 before taking over as head coach in 1963. Another promotion within.
And lastly, Bowden Wyatt took over as the Vols’ head coach in 1955 after serving as head coach at Arkansas. Wyatt is the third and final coach on this list that the Vols hired away from a “big time” school to be their head coach in the last 62 years. Wyatt had been at Arkansas two seasons before Tennessee hired him as their head coach, but the dynamics back then were different, and Arkansas was far from a respected power in college football. They were in the Southwest Conference, and Wyatt’s 8-3 record with them in 1954 was their first season above .500 since 1947.
Tennessee hasn’t made it a habit of hiring “big time” coaches over the years. And even of the three coaches with a “Power Five” job at the time Tennessee hired them, only one, Johnny Majors, was truly viewed as a “splash hire” when the decision was made.
Will the Vols decide to hire away a sitting head coach at a Power Five school? Only time will tell, but their history says it’s not very likely. Or if they do, it won’t be a “big name” like some fans want.