Tennessee hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele on Jan. 12 with the intentions of him becoming an assistant coach under former Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt. On Tuesday, March 2, his tenure in Knoxville came to an end.
It hasn’t felt like almost two months since Steele was hired by Pruitt and former athletic director Phillip Fulmer, but as new coach Josh Heupel finished his staff this week, Steele was on his way out with a huge buyout. In January, Steele was brought onto the Tennessee staff at a cheap rate, thanks to a buyout from Auburn. He wasn’t expected to be part of Heupel’s new staff at Tennessee, so the waiting game continued over the past month as to when he would be let go.
His hiring transpired during a time where those close to Pruitt thought me might be retained by Tennessee, but little did he know that his time was coming to an end. After two months of investigating Pruitt and members of his staff, he was fired on Martin Luther King Jr. day, in a very weird press conference that also saw Fulmer “step aside” for the betterment of the program. Let’s not mistake what happened that day, as both Pruitt and Fulmer were let go, one with pay and the other having to fight for it in court.
This left Steele, who during the previous week had flown to California with Pruitt to try and convince Henry To’oto’o to return to Knoxville. In the end it looks like everyone has now gone their separate ways. Steele was around the complex for a certain period of time in his first month, making phone calls to recruits and holding meetings. In a team meeting after he was named interim head coach, he told players he “wasn’t here to be a substitute teacher,” which is exactly what it turned out to be over the next few weeks.
This hiring was signed off on by the Chancellor at Tennessee, Donde Plowman, at the urging of Fulmer and others. It was supposed to be a sign of stability and a backup plan if Pruitt were to be fired. What it actually turned out to be was another instance where Tennessee wasted money on a coaches buyout, in this case a man who was on the job for just over fifty days.
Steele had signed a contract on Jan. 12 that would pay him $450,000 per year, with the other portion of his salary coming from Auburn. After Heupel hired Mike Ekeler to his final assistant coaching spot, the Steele saga turned into another paycheck the university would have to write. In his contract with Tennessee, Steele was hired to be an “assistant coach,” not an analyst or any other position. So, that last month has turned into one big game of “chicken,” as they tried to figure out who would blink first.
The buyout agreement that the university and Steele agreed to will pay him $860,870. This can be mitigated by another school hiring him, but he still walks away with a monthly paycheck until 2023.
Steele wasn’t walking away from that much money and he might not have been able to, as Auburn might’ve tried something dicey with his buyout if he were to “quit” another job. It was always going to end like this. Tennessee paying another coach to walk away, but this time it was to a coach who never coached a down while he was on staff.
As Heupel looks to start preparing for spring practice, this is one less distraction he’ll have to deal with, especially new athletic director Danny White.
But as we all know with Tennessee over the past eight months, it was never going to end easy, it was meant to be difficult because the university made it that way.
Steele will now move on to another job, he’s too good of a coach not too, but this time he’ll be collecting checks from two different former schools, while he works at another.