As of today, Tennessee has been officially on the search for an offensive coordinator to replace Tyson Helton for a week. It was reported on Monday of last week that Helton was in consideration for the Western Kentucky head coaching job, and the official announcement came the next day.
It’s been a full week of searching, researching, and interviewing for Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. But now, it looks like he may be nearing a decision.
According to Chris Low of ESPN, an announcement on who will be the Vols’ next offensive coordinator could be coming in the next 24 hours. Low has been well-connected with UT’s offensive coordinator search, and he appeared on The Nation on WNML on Sunday afternoon to talk about the search. During his appearance, he shed some on Tennessee’s decision-making process in the coaching search.
“Right on through, I think Hugh Freeze has been right there at the top of the list,” Low said on The Nation. “I think Jeremy is trying to check all the boxes. I would expect by (Monday), certainly Tuesday at the latest that he’s gonna have an offensive coordinator on board.
“I know everybody wants to know if it’s going to be Hugh Freeze, if he’s the leader. I don’t want to speak for Jeremy Pruitt, but as I’ve said right on through, and I’ve tried to be consistent with all this, I think Hugh Freeze is right there in the forefront of this search. And I think he’s somebody that could help Tennessee a lot.”
Low added that Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer spoke with Pruitt and told him to “talk to several people” to figure out the best fit for what he wants to do with UT’s offense. Pruitt has spoken with Freeze, Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, Alabama quarterbacks Dan Enos, and NC State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz.
While each candidate offers their own pros and cons, Low believes Freeze has what Pruitt is looking for in his next OC, calling him “creative” and “innovative” as a play-caller.
“When you look at where this offense is, they need somebody that can come in and has a track record, a history of being able to move the football and score points with personnel that’s maybe not on the level of Georgia or Alabama,” Low added. “And Freeze has done that wherever he’s been.”
Freeze’s offenses at Ole Miss averaged 30 points or more per game in four of his five seasons as head coach, and Arkansas State averaged 30 points or more in both the seasons he was there (2010 as OC, 2011 as head coach).
When Freeze took over at Ole Miss, the Rebels had won six games the previous two seasons combined and had averaged just 16.1 points per game in 2011. He took the Rebels to a bowl game and a 7-6 record in his first year on the job and nearly doubled their scoring output, lifting up the Ole Miss offense to average 31.5 points a game.
But the main concern with Freeze is his off-field issues. Freeze resigned from his position at Ole Miss prior to the 2017 season due to several NCAA investigations. The one that caused Freeze to step down involved an investigation into him contacting “female escorts” on a university-issued phone.
Looking back a year ago, Vol fans were both bashed and applauded for their stand against then-Athletics Director John Currie attempting to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano because of his ties to what happened with Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. With the baggage that Freeze brings, there have already been discussions over the last week about whether or not Vol fans would be considered hypocritical for accepting Freeze but not Schiano.
Low believes backlash will come if Tennessee does hire Freeeze.
“Let’s be honest, if Jeremy does hire Hugh, there’s gonna be backlash nationally, there’s gonna be some backlash on campus because of the way he left Ole Miss, resigning there after the Ole Miss administration found a pattern of what they called ‘personal misconduct’ tied to phone calls to escort services,” Low said. “All that was embarrassing to Hugh and his family. He’s owned it. He’s said, ‘Hey, listen, we all make mistakes. I certainly have.’ And there’s also the NCAA probation part of it. Ole Miss was hit with sanctions that occurred on his watch.”
Many Vol fans have wondered that if Freeze is hired at Tennessee if he or the university would be reprimanded by the SEC. Low believes that if Freeze does get some sort of punishment from the SEC, it won’t be anything significant or long-lasting. He stated that Freeze wasn’t charged with “unethical conduct” during the NCAA’s investigation into what he and his staff did on the recruiting trail. He was cited for “failure to monitor his staff,” but he was mentioned in their findings as creating “an atmosphere of compliance.”
Low says Freeze may face “off-campus recruiting restrictions” for the spring or his first year on the job, but that would likely be it in terms of punishment levied by the SEC.
There’s also been concern among Vol fans about hiring Freeze because if he does a good job at Tennessee, he’ll likely only stick around a year or two. If Freeze turns around UT’s offense, there’s a very good chance he’ll start getting head coaching offers from other schools.
If Tennessee wants Freeze, Low says they can’t afford to wait around and be afraid of him leaving after a couple years. Low likened it to what Phillip Fulmer did in 2006 when he rehired David Cutcliffe to come in as UT’s OC. Most people assumed at the time that Cutcliffe would only be around a couple years if he had success, and that turned out to be true. But he did the job at Tennessee and made the Vols’ offense powerful again in his two years as offensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007 before he took the head coaching position at Duke.
“I don’t think you think about what’s gonna happen a year or two from now,” Low explained. “You make sure that next year you’re better and you get things straightened out on offense.”
Tennessee ranked at the bottom of the SEC in just about every major offensive category this season. They need a turn around in a big way over the next couple seasons if Jeremy Pruitt wants to have success as a head coach. And if the Vols don’t hire Freeze, Low says they could be coaching and recruiting against him.
“If Tennessee doesn’t hire Hugh Freeze — and again, I think he’s right there in the middle of this deal, and I think there’s a very good chance he will be hired — but if they don’t for whatever reason, there’s a good chance Tennessee’s gonna be playing against him next year,” Low said. “I know Alabama would be interested. No question, Auburn has talked to him. He and Gus Malzahn go back a long ways.
“Someone is gonna hire him, and potentially somebody in the SEC.”