By Mark Nagi

Tennessee’s football program is floundering.

Recruits are de-committing. Assistant coaches are bolting. Their head coach has been in COVID-19 quarantine, not seen in nearly a month.

Making matters worse, an internal investigation is underway to determine if Tennessee is guilty of recruiting violations.

That’s not good.

Tennessee has reportedly put a halt on contract extensions for the coaching staff, which makes complete sense with the investigation ongoing. They were also reportedly in a hiring freeze, which is a problem since the staff was already down a defensive line coach and an offensive line coach.

But on January 12th, Tennessee announced that Kevin Steele, a Tennessee grad and two-time assistant coach at UT, was hired as a defensive assistant.

“Kevin is someone I have respected and admired for a long time on and off the field,” Pruitt said in a press release. “I had the opportunity to learn and work with him during our time at Alabama and our friendship grew from there. He has outstanding knowledge of the game and understands what it takes to be successful in this conference. Having coached under the great Johnny Majors, he has a sincere appreciation for what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer. We are thrilled to welcome Kevin and Linda back to Rocky Top.”

“Linda and I are excited to be coming home,” Steele said in that same press release. “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.”

Steele was available after Gus Malzahn was fired at Auburn. Rumors circulated that Auburn boosters were trying to promote Steele, who had been serving as the Tigers defensive coordinator. Instead, the gig went to Boise State’s Bryan Harsin.

Pruitt knows Steele well from their time together on the Alabama coaching staff in 2007 and 2008. But make no mistake, this was a Phillip Fulmer hire. Fulmer worked with Steele when both were assistant coaches at UT under Johnny Majors. Fulmer thought so highly of Steele that he was in the final three for the Tennessee head coaching job before Fulmer hired Pruitt.

It’s difficult to argue with Steele’s resume. Steele has 38 years of coaching experience, including 13 years in the SEC and 10 years as a defensive coordinator. He’s a very good recruiter and has put a whole bunch of kids in the NFL.

Cash strapped Tennessee is also thankful that Auburn is paying most of his salary,

But the hiring of Steele at Tennessee is also some insurance in case the investigation turns up some things that force them to fire Pruitt. Steele has Power 5 head coaching experience, so it is likely he’d be picked to hold the Tennessee job, at least on an interim basis.

Granted, a 9-36 record in 4 years at Baylor won’t energize the fanbase, but it would mean that they have someone in place to get Tennessee through the 2021 season. They wouldn’t be rushed to make a panic hire as they did in 2010.

The hiring of Kevin Steele means a lot… for a lot of different reasons.