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Let's get this straight: Sometime last week, news surfaced out of Knoxville that the University of Tennessee had put a hiring freeze on the football program due to alleged recruiting violations committed by head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff.

With openings on the offensive and defensive line positions, as well contracts set to expire on January 31st for linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and wide receivers coach Tee Martin, this decision was no small matter. If you can't go about the business of hiring and firing, you can't stay in business.

And a lot of folks have believed that was the point. That this was all adding up to the firing of Pruitt for just cause, which, if carried out, could save the school more than $17 million in total buyouts to Pruitt and his assistants.

However, then came Tuesday afternoon and multiple media sources, including our newspaper's David Paschall, confirmed that former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (who also played and coached for the Vols) has joined the UT football staff.

Later, the school even sent out a news release with a quote from the 62-year-old Steele that confirmed the hiring. Said Steele in that release: "Tennessee is a special place to me personally. I am truly grateful to Coach Pruitt and Coach (Phillip) Fulmer for this opportunity, and I am eager to get to work alongside them once again. I look forward to helping create an environment where our players are successful and truly embrace what it means to be a Volunteer."

Hmmmmm.

So is this little investigation — which was reportedly instigated by the school, of all things — over? Is Pruitt off the hook where the NCAA is concerned? Or is his three-year stint and 16-19 record atop Rocky Top about to end with the understanding that Steele must be retained by whomever replaces Pruitt?

Mostly, can somebody, anybody with the inside knowledge to do so, explain what is going with the Vols, who are on the verge of yet again becoming the most dysfunctional, disappointing program in the Southeastern Conference, if they aren't already there?

This is asked a day after SEC Network commentator and UT grad Paul Finebaum told a Birmingham, Ala., radio show — when asked about Pruitt making it to the 2021 season — "It's seeming to be more unlikely by the day. And that is a story that comes and goes off the radar screen like a bad storm, but all signs are pointing toward him heading toward the exit."

Finebaum doesn't dispense his opinions through a Gatling gun, hoping that one of a hundred or so will stick. He tends to know of what he speaks, and if he says that all signs are pointing to the forced exit of his alma mater's football coach, he no doubt has excellent intel to support that belief.

But let's say he's wrong. Let's say that Pruitt, in a last gasp to save his job, has convinced Fulmer that the hiring of Steele — and the believed wooing of Rodney Garner to fill the vacant defensive line position — is all he needs to turn things around.

Steele is reportedly signed through the 2022 season for an annual salary of $450,000, so one can't help but wonder if the athletic director in Fulmer has come to the conclusion that spending $900,000 on Steele and however much more it may take to land Garner is far more fiscally responsible than throwing away millions of dollars to rid the program of Pruitt before a couple of more seasons — Pruitt's contract is currently set to expire in 2026 — greatly lessen his buyout.

Yet given the way the program appears to be trending, is that smart?

When your entire athletic department relies on the football program being good enough to fill all of Neyland Stadium's 102,455 seats each and every home game, shouldn't the Vols quit hiring on the cheap, hoping they know something no one else does about the underwhelming choices they've made the last 12 years? Isn't it time to hire a proven winner from a Power Five conference program?

What's the line about the definition of insanity? Something about repeating the same behavior over and over again hoping for a different result? Isn't that UT football in a nutshell from the day Derek Dooley was hired prior to the 2010 season?

Merely consider that since firing Fulmer as head coach before the close of the 2008 season, UT has now had four head coaches, four athletic directors and not a single appearance in a New Year's Six bowl game. The 3-7 season just past is its sixth losing one since 2009. Conversely, Alabama has won six national championships over that time. Given that, the gap between the Big Orange and the SEC's legitimate championship contenders may have never been wider.

So keeping Pruitt — whether he's cleared of NCAA wrongs or not — certainly carries its own risks, such as creating further apathy within a fan base that already appears as if it has all but given up.

Of course, there could be another reason for hiring Steele at this time with an apparent eye on Garner. Both men are hugely respected in the coaching fraternity. Both carry sterling reputations as top-notch recruiters. Both have worked at UT previously.

Who's to say that Fulmer hasn't already reached out to, oh, Hugh Freeze at Liberty to see if he'd be interested in including Steele and Garner on his staff if the Vols were to hire him to replace Pruitt?

When you think about it that way, the term "hiring freeze" takes on a whole new meaning, as well as giving a depressed and downtrodden Big Orange Nation a whole new reason to chill out about the future of UT football.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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