KNOXVILLE — A trio of Southeastern Conference defensive coordinators found the spotlight of Tennessee's untiring search for a head football coach today.
Alabama's Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia's Mel Tucker and Auburn's Kevin Steele all directed defenses ranked in the top 15 nationally this season, and each has had a chance to interview for Tennessee's head coaching job, according to media reports.
A source with knowledge of the process told the Times Free Press that Pruitt's initial interview with new athletic director Phillip Fulmer went well.
"He knocked it out of the park," the source said.
ESPN's Mark Schlabach reported that Tucker was getting a second interview with Fulmer today, and Steele skipped out on an awards presentation in Arkansas to interview with Fulmer in New York, according to an AL.com report.
Fulmer has been in New York to see former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning be honored by the National Football Foundation for his induction to the College Football Hall of Fame. The annual awards convocation is an unofficial college football networking event.
Tennessee also contacted Southern California offensive coordinator and former Volunteers quarterback Tee Martin today for the first time since the coaching search began, according to multiple reports.
Today's developments came as the only other Southeastern Conference school without a head coach, Arkansas, filled its vacancy. The Razorbacks are expected to announce Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris as their new coach this week.
Tennessee was the second SEC school, behind Florida, to have a head coaching vacancy this season, and it will be the last school in the conference to hire a coach. With the search now under Fulmer's direction, finances are believed to be a limiting factor more so than when ousted athletic director John Currie was leading the search last week.
The expectation within the sports business community is that former Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano will pursue a settlement with Tennessee in the wake of his near-hiring by the school last Sunday. Currie, who is on paid suspension, also is expected to challenge for his $5 million-plus buyout, should the university try to fire him with cause.
Industry expert Jason Belzer, who works as an agent representing Division I football and basketball coaches, told the Times Free Press today that it appears Tennessee has "cornered itself."
"Either they're going to end up having to hire an assistant like Tee Martin who doesn't have a buyout or hire someone like Les (Miles) that is getting paid and doesn't have a buyout," said Belzer, who also teaches sports business at Rutgers University. "Unless they have a huge amount of money sitting somewhere that nobody knows about, they've really put themselves in a difficult position to hire a sitting head coach with any kind of substantial buyout."
Pruitt, Tucker and Steele all fit the profile of likely being relatively low-cost options for Tennessee. Their emergence comes just a week after Tennessee reportedly offered to make Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy one of college football's top five highest paid coaches.
That was before Currie's paid suspension. From information that has surfaced so far, Belzer said it appears "highly unlikely" that Tennessee will escape paying Currie his buyout.
"Was there cause? Everything I know from a legal standpoint, there was no cause," Belzer said.
Belzer characterized Schiano's case against Tennessee as "more of a gray area." Generally, memorandums of understanding are legally enforceable as contracts, but without Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport's signature on the memorandum, Belzer said, the university could argue that the deal was incomplete.
"If I was advising Greg, I would not take anything unless it was sealed and no one really found about it," Belzer said. "Period. End of story. Even if the university offered him a whole bunch of money, he wants to be a head coach again. He's not going to put his career in jeopardy, especially from a PR perspective, to go and litigate against them in a public court and make everyone look bad."
Adding to Tennessee's need for financial prudence are that fired coach Butch Jones has not been publicly linked to any head coaching vacancies yet. Tennessee owes Jones $2.5 million per year for the next three-plus years. That amount is reduced by what he makes in his next job, if he takes one.
There is also widespread speculation that Davenport's decision to name Fulmer athletic director went against the wishes of the university's most prominent boosters, Jim and Jimmy Haslam, which could serve to reduce the capital available to Fulmer in the search.
Still, for all the struggle Tennessee has endured in its effort to find Jones' successor, there appear to be redeeming qualities about the crew of defensive coordinators being considered this week.
Tucker, 45, has Georgia's defense ranked sixth nationally in total defense. The No. 3 Bulldogs (12-1) made the College Football Playoff after defeating Auburn in the SEC championship game. Georgia ranks sixth in the country in total defense. The Bulldogs blanked Tennessee 41-0 at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 30. It was Tennessee's first shutout loss since 1994.
Pruitt was the defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013 when the Seminoles won the national championship. He worked the next two years as defensive coordinator for Mark Richt at Georgia before joining Nick Saban's staff as Alabama's defensive coordinator in 2016.
Georgia ranked 17th nationally in total defense under Pruitt in 2014 and seventh nationally in 2015. Pruitt's 2016 Alabama defense was first nationally, and this year's group is second.
Steele's Auburn defense ranked 14th nationally this year. The 59-year-old is a former Tennessee player and assistant.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated Dec. 5 at 11:59 p.m.