NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The news of Jeremy Pruitt’s firing means Tennessee will now set out to hire its fifth football coach since Phillip Fulmer was let go in 2008 in an effort to get its once proud program back on track.
Tennessee has the advantage of being one of the few schools that can lure candidates with a big salary and top notch facilities and resources, but also has the stigma of a program run amok amidst administrative dysfunction for more than a decade.
The Vols need to get this hire right, but before they can find a football coach they need to find an athletics director that can restore order to the department after the retiring Fulmer failed to do so in his three years on the job.
UT Chancellor Donde Plowman needs to pick someone, who unlike Fulmer, has experience leading a major college athletic department and can convince any potential new coach that the program can get back to its past heights.
Here are some potential candidates for the athletic director position who might have mutual interest about Tennessee.
Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech
After a successful stint at Cincinnati from 2011-2014, Babcock moved to Blacksburg where he’s had more success with the Hokies. He lured Justin Fuente away from Memphis when Frank Beamer retired and, despite a down year in 2020, Virginia Tech has gone to four bowl games in five years under his leadership. Babcock also has made two men’s basketball hires. First, he hired Buzz Williams who won 100 games and went to three NCAA Tournaments in five years. When Williams departed for Texas A&M, Babcock hired Wofford’s Mike Young who went 16-16 in year one, but has Virginia Tech in the top 20 this year.
Danny White, UCF
The son of Duke athletic director Kevin White, Danny has been viewed as one of the brightest minds in college athletics through stops at Buffalo and now UCF. He hired prolific division III coach Lance Leipold of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who has since taken UB to unprecedented levels of sustained success. At UCF, he initially hired Oregon assistant Scott Frost, who went 19-7 in two seasons including a perfect 14-0 mark in 2017. When Frost left for Nebraska, White hired Oklahoma assistant Josh Heupel, who has kept the Knights competing at the top of the AAC. White has also done good work in basketball, hiring Bobby Hurley and Nate Oats at Buffalo, and former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins at UCF.
Mack Rhodes, Baylor
Rhodes inherited a Baylor football program that was a mess after the turmoil surrounding the departure of Art Briles. He quickly turned things around with the hire of Temple’s Matt Rhule, who went 11-3 in 2019 before leaving for the Carolina Panthers. He then turned to Dave Arranda, who helped LSU win a national championship as defensive coordinator. Rhodes also hired Tom Herman at Houston and currently oversees a basketball program ranked no. 2 in the nation.
Ray Anderson, Arizona State
Hired in 2014, Anderson has made a splash with hires in football and basketball. First, he hired Hurley from Buffalo five years ago, leading to just shy of 20 wins per season and two NCAA Tournaments already. He also hired former NFL coach Herm Edwards in a move that was criticized by many, but seems to be panning out with the Sun Devils rebounding to go 17-13 so far under his leadership.
ON THE RISE:
Todd Stewart, Western Kentucky
Stewart was hired when Ross Bjork left for Ole Miss in 2012. He has been busy ever since, hiring four football coaches and one basketball coach. Stewart first brought Bobby Petrino to the hill, where he rehabilitated his image with an 8-4 season. When Petrino returned to Louisville, Stewart hired Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 before moving on to Purdue. His third hire Mike Sanford went just 9-16, but Tyson Helton has helped the Hilltoppers rebound with back to back bowl appearances. Stewart’s basketball hire, Rick Stansbury, has WKU competing for Conference USA titles.
Wren Baker, North Texas
Baker has worked his way up the college athletics ranks. He served as basketball coach and then the first A.D. at Rogers State University, leading the program through a successful rebranding and elevation to NCAA Division II. He then led a highly successful program at Division II Northwest Missouri State before taking deputy A.D. roles at Memphis and Missouri. Baker was hired by North Texas in 2016 and has overseen one of the most well-funded athletic departments in Conference USA, with the school’s programs winning more games in 2018-19 than ever before. Baker hired basketball coach Grant McCasland, who has led the Mean Green to back to back 20-win seasons.
TIES TO THE PROGRAM:
Mark Ingram, UAB
A two-year football player at Tennessee, Ingram has been UAB A.D. since 2015, overseeing the most challenging period in the school’s athletic history. Ingram spearheaded the charge to reinstate the football program, along with two other sports, managing to maintain successful coach Bill Clark through the hiatus. He previously worked at Temple and as a senior athletics administrator at UT.
Jon Gilbert, East Carolina
Gilbert briefly served as Southern Miss athletic director before moving to ECU in 2018. Since there, he has overhauled the program’s facilities and hired national championship FCS football coach Mike Houston from James Madison. Gilbert previously worked as an athletics administrator at Alabama and as a senior associate A.D. under Dave Hart at Tennessee from 2011-17.
Desiree Reed-Francois, UNLV
The first Hispanic woman or woman of color hired as a FBS-level athletics director in 2017, Reed-Francois has turned around the culture of UNLV athletics. She restructured the department’s administration and has already hired six new head coaches, including football coach Marcus Orroyo, the former Oregon offensive coordinator, and successful South Dakota State basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger. She previously worked under Babcock at Cincinnati and Virginia Tech, and under Hart at Tennessee.