Tennessee parted ways with assistant coach Kevin Steele this week, less than two months after adding him to staff prior to Jeremy Pruitt’s firing and owes him a hefty severance package. According to ESPN’s Chris Low, the Vols will pay Steele his full $900,000 salary over the next two seasons after new coach Josh Heupel decided not to retain him on staff.
Low reports through sources that university chancellor Donde Plowman signed off on the hiring of Steele, a former letterwinner in Knoxville, and a week later, Pruitt’s firing following an investigation into recruiting violations brought into question the future of every remaining assistant coach on staff.
Steele was hired in mid-January after Gus Malzahn was let go at Auburn. Malzahn is now the head coach at UCF.
“Linda and I are excited to be coming home,” Steele said in the press release at the time. “Tennessee is a special place to me personally. I am truly grateful to Coach Pruitt and Coach 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.”
In addition to Steele, Tennessee will pay the buyouts of several assistant coaches totaling $10 million, per ESPN. Steele’s buyout would be mitigated if he takes another job elsewhere. Shortly after Pruitt’s ousting, athletic director Phillip Fulmer stepped down and the Vols hired UCF AD Danny White.
White’s coaching search was quick and tidy and kept behind the scenes. He landed Heupel, his former comrade in Orlando.
“It just became — one of the things I always do in a coaching search is I talk to the players. I want to know from their perspective what is going on,” White said, detailing his decision in February. “I learned a lot doing that, from them. I don’t talk to the whole team. I have the team vote on representatives, and I met with nine kids off the football team here. I use that as I’m going through the interview process and vetting. They’re not all interviews. A lot of it is just casual conversations just trying to figure out the market and what the opportunities are. I learned from each of those conversations too.
“Towards the end of it, in my mind, Josh wasn’t even on the list. Emotionally and psychologically, I couldn’t even get myself to think about doing that, but then I’m comparing the candidates and the options. None of them were as good a fit for what this place needs right now as Josh Heupel. A light bulb went off, and it was a light bulb that was exciting for a minute but then, ‘Oh no, how do I do this?’”
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