The common denominator in conversations I’ve had with friends and family today: will we have the patience for what comes next?
Is there any other way to be?
I guess that’s always been the allure of Gruden, Freeze, Pearl’s return, and other Tennessee fairy tales: the corresponding myth of the quick fix. They’ll solve it right away!
But there is no right away here, in part because we’re not sure how deep the hole will go or which athletic director is going shopping for ladders.
Back when we were only discussing firing Jeremy Pruitt for on-field results, one of the most compelling arguments for change was the idea that the realistic candidate pool might actually work in Tennessee’s favor this time. Even when you take Hugh Freeze off the table, that list of names is still only short Steve Sarkisian at this point. The Vols didn’t miss out on any of those guys because they waited too long.
The question now becomes, how many of those guys would still say yes to this job?
In looking at all the hot boards this afternoon, it’s funny how, at least for me, my first impression is still stubbornly attached to who Tennessee was more than a dozen years ago: “This looks like our basketball hot boards!” Coastal Carolina. Louisiana. Charlotte. UAB. Buffalo. Those old false narratives – we’re Tennessee, we should aim higher and pay more – hold on with surprising strength considering their age. In reality, Tennessee’s last four hires came as fired NFL coach, Louisiana Tech, Cincinnati, and assistant at Alabama. The guy before that, another chapter coming to its end today, was an assistant at Tennessee.
For instance, if Tennessee hired Billy Napier – 28-11 overall with the Rajun Cajuns and 21-4 the last two years – he’d be the most proven candidate as a collegiate head coach the Vols hired since Johnny Majors. Butch Jones was 23-14 at Cincinnati, but only after following Brian Kelly, who went 34-6. Napier followed Mark Hudspeth, whose last three years at Louisiana went 4-8, 6-7, and 5-7.
But would Billy Napier say yes to this job right now? Would Gus Malzahn or Tom Herman?
How much of what we assume to be the list – current coaches from the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and the MAC, but all of them actually more proven winners and program builders on their own merits as head coaches than anyone we’ve hired recently – would say yes to being the head coach at Tennessee in 2021?
I love a good historical comparison, but I’m not sure there is one for where Tennessee is right now.
In the summer of 2019, we wrote on how Tennessee’s current absence from the final AP Top 20 – then 11 years, now 13 – was longer than any of the other 15 winningest programs had ever faced. In fact, the second-longest absence was Tennessee, 10 years from 1975-84. Toward the end of those ten years, there were quiet, steady steps of progress from Johnny Majors. Now the Vols, a baker’s dozen from the Top 20, may be at a new low.
We also know Tennessee is one of the seven teams in the “top half” of the SEC that seem capable of recruiting at a championship level, but the Vols are seventh of those seven already, trying to beat Florida/Georgia/Bama at a lesser version of their own game. The window was open for Butch Jones but his Vols couldn’t get through, and even though Jeremy Pruitt appears to have closed the gap from purely a talent standpoint, the window of opportunity is much smaller now thanks to the success of Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen in the division.
So yeah, it’s hard to win here right now. Maybe it’s harder now than ever. And it’s about to get harder.
What do we do with all that?
For now: patience. It’s the best available choice. Maybe the only one.
You’re a grown up, of course. You can do what you want. We’re ten months into a pandemic, we know good and well people don’t have to be anything, especially patient. Patience is hard.
But failing to learn it well usually ends up worse.
When the Vols lost to Arkansas, I wrote about transitioning our metaphor from wilderness to exile, assuming the Vols wouldn’t fire Jeremy Pruitt no matter what happened the rest of this season because of the pandemic. Turns out, there are things that will make them fire him, and those things make exile much more likely, which means I believe even more in what we said then: we’re going to be here for a season. The biblical sense, not the Fall 2021 sense. This is where we live right now. And a stiff neck will not get you out any faster.
In exile, you live your life. With purpose. Build houses and live in them. Increase, do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city.
And do not listen to the prophets who tell you this will all be over soon. Do not listen when anyone tells you so-and-so is a sure thing; we should all know better by now that’s a lie. Be careful when giving your time and energies to those whose business interests are in keeping you agitated.
How do we live in exile? Purpose. Patience.
Seek the welfare of the city. Words matter. How we communicate matters. It all matters. And I think patience will matter most in the midst of this season. Patience, paradoxically, is the healthiest way out of exile.
Whoever Tennessee hires will need it.
And we will need it for and from each other.