Two Views of Tennessee’s Staff Shakeup
By Paul Myerberg // Mar 2, 2012
It started on Dec. 2, five days after Tennessee capped its season with the program’s first loss to Kentucky since 1984, with the retirement of wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, a 33-year coaching veteran. Nine days later, special teams coach Eric Russell left to take the same position at Washington State under Mike Leach, his former boss at Texas Tech. On Jan. 2, the Volunteers lost defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon to Washington — this was the most unexpected blow of all. Less than two weeks later, defensive line coach Lance Thompson departed for Alabama. On Jan. 25, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand left Knoxville to join Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.
Tennessee’s staff shakeup might continue, should safeties coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph accept an offer to become Bo Pelini’s new defensive backs coach at Nebraska. As reported by Andrew Gribble of the Knoxville News Sentinel, Joseph has been offered the position but is still weighing his options.
If Joseph does leave for Lincoln, Tennessee will enter next season with only two holdovers: offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw, the former quarterbacks coach who was moved to receiver duties to replace Baggett. Chaney will now coach the quarterbacks in addition to coordinating Tennessee’s offensive attack.
Derek Dooley promised a thorough examination of his coaching staff, but few could have expected such a widespread overhaul. Turnover was in the cards — U.T. lost seven games, after all — but not to this degree: six current changes, with the potential for that number to grow to seven should Joseph be reunited with Pelini, who was the defensive coordinator at L.S.U. when Joseph was a graduate assistant.
Is the sky falling in Knoxville? The pessimistic take is that Dooley’s former assistants were jumping Tennessee’s ship before it ran aground; with Dooley on the hot seat heading into 2012, joining Nebraska or Washington, for example, might provide Wilcox, Sirmon and Joseph with better career security.
But a more balanced view of Tennessee’s coaching diaspora indicates a slightly different story. Would Wilcox and Sirmon have left the program had the Volunteers been coming off a 10-win season? Probably not. But in the case of that pair, returning to their Pac-12 roots — both are Oregon graduates — along with a questionable future at Tennessee provided the sort of opportunity that was too good to pass up.
Losing Eric Russell stings: Tennessee wasn’t outstanding on special teams last fall, but Russell is still viewed as one of the nation’s best coordinators. But like Wilcox and Sirmon, Russell couldn’t decline the coaching opportunity, reenlisting under Leach, that came his way shortly after the end of the regular season.
I’m sure U.T. would have loved to keep Thompson in the fold, but losing him to Nick Saban and Alabama was unavoidable. He was Saban’s natural choice to replace Tennessee-bound Sal Sunseri, the Volunteers’ new defensive coordinator. While losing Thompson hurts U.T. on the recruiting trail, it was in the program’s best interest to allow Sunseri to bring in his own staff of defensive assistants.
Baggett and Hiestand can be replaced with relative ease. Hinshaw has already stepped in for Baggett; he brings a high degree of familiarity with Tennessee’s corps of young but still-raw receivers, which is a good thing for this offense. Hiestand’s replacement, former U.N.C. offensive line coach Sam Pittman, brings in a strong track record of talent development. Last fall, the Tar Heels’ offensive line and running game ranked among the best in the A.C.C.
Stand back and view the staffing moves from a distance. Tennessee just completed a hugely disappointing season; in particular, the Volunteers left the season with that loss to Kentucky fresh in mind. The moves were unavoidable — how U.T. reacted to the departures would define Dooley’s offseason.
It’s time for Tennessee to think positively. Sunseri brings some Alabama-like toughness to a far too staid and passive defense. Pittman’s an upgrade along the offensive line. Hinshaw has a working relationship with Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, Tennessee’s two burgeoning stars at receiver. That’s a good thing.
New defensive line coach John Palermo has 37 years of experience, including 15 seasons under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. The Volunteers stole new running backs coach Jay Graham, Marcus Lattimore’s mentor, away from South Carolina.
There will be a learning curve, as expected. But the Volunteers may be in a better place, staffing-wise, than they were at the end of the 2011 season. The optimistic take is that the program needed fresh blood and a new voice. The talent is there; perhaps the Volunteers simply need a push in the right direction.
While it’s not a dream scenario, losing at least two-thirds of a coaching staff, Dooley and Tennessee are making the most of a difficult situation. But beware: Dooley won’t get a free pass in 2012 based on the staffing moves. The standards remain the same, with anything less than a seven-win regular season grounds for another major coaching shakeup — beginning with Dooley and continuing with his entire staff.
Tags: Bo Pelini, Darin Hinshaw, Derek Dooley, Eric Russell, Jay Graham, Justin Wilcox, Mike Leach, Peter Sirmon, Sal Sunseri, Tennessee, Terry Joseph
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