Tennessee fans who are old enough to be called “Generation X” – or something even older – have been forced to accept a well-known fact that has been present elsewhere for decades: college football is an extremely short-lived.
This was evident more recently when Tennessee receivers coach Kodi Burns decided to lock down Knoxville for the NFL and take a similar stance with the New Orleans Saints. These types of moves should no longer be a surprise. The Vols have lost almost as many coaches as they have games since former coach Phillip Fulmer’s unique brand of loyalty left the sports complex in 2008.
Fulmer was often criticized for keeping coaches on too long, especially when fans didn’t think they were performing. There’s no need to break down every individual coach Fulmer has kept. However, let’s just say that the criticism was justified in many cases.
For a long time, Fulmer disagreed. He felt comfortable around certain people and wanted control, which is by no means a criticism. Fulmer wanted to be careful of some of his longtime assistants, who weren’t bringing in millions of dollars like they do now. Fulmer wanted his usual say in offense when he hired Dave Clawson as offensive coordinator. Well, it didn’t go so well, but it would be unfair to expect Fulmer to give up his offense after decades at elite level. He didn’t, and we all know how it worked.
Fulmer’s loyalty to his coaches came at a different time from college football. Assistant coaches in the 1990s and 2000s weren’t making life-changing money, and Fulmer wanted them to be safe and not have to move their families. It is respectable. The Clawson case is an entirely different matter. It was a complete failure and Fulmer made a mistake that ultimately cost him his job. Let’s move on.
So let’s move on to the modern era of college football. Assistant coaches make life-changing money and aren’t afraid to pile on their resumes with multiple saves. That’s what Burns decided to do.
What do the Vols lose with the departure of Burns? Let’s start with the obvious. He was the receivers coach and the Vols had an explosive offense. However, Burns’ impact on this offense is debatable. Tennessee has had open receivers all season. It’s not going to stop now that Burns has moved to Cajun country. Open receivers were as much a byproduct of Tennessee’s offense as Burns’ training.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel is the man most responsible for opening receivers last season and throughout his career. It’s easy to say that the game design or the appeal of the game is the reason Heupel has been so successful. However, this is only part of the process. The pace of Heupel’s attack is key. His teams are so primed to execute a fast-breaking style that opposing defenses often just wilt. That’s not going to change just because Burns is gone. The tempo will always be there. Receivers will be open despite having to learn under a new tutelage.
As for recruiting, Burns has surely been helpful. However, recruiting has become such a team sport that no loss, other than a head coach or key coordinator, should change what the Vols can do with pending prospects.
Tennessee has gotten used to coaching changes. The Flights have hired and fired coaches over the past decade as if they were peddling passengers on and off a Dollywood ride. The assistant coaches quickly realized they were working for incompetent coaches and left town while getting it was still good. This is not the case with Burns. Tennessee is on a positive trajectory. Either he wanted a change of scenery, or Heupel was ready to take another direction.
There are three coaches who would raise a serious red flag if they decided to leave Knoxville. Obviously, Heupel is No. 1. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks is another. Banks has made the most of a defense that had serious pre-season issues, and he seems comfortable with Heupel’s quick style putting more pressure on his defence. The Vols would certainly hate to lose defensive line coach Rodney Garner. When it comes to recruiting, he has few peers.
I’m sure every Tennessee fan this side of the Atlantic is curious about who the Vols will replace Burns. Heupel could hire internally or go elsewhere to supplement his staff, who had no other business than Burns. It’s a compliment to Heupel’s culture. Coaches want to stay because they can win games and learn from a successful young attacking coach. In the past, Tennessee was in no rush to replace Burns. However, the recruiting schedule has changed, so having a plan in place to replace Burns is a good idea.
Many Tennessee fans will be typing on their computer keys in hopes of finding Burns’ replacement. Do not bother. Any list currently online is pure speculation. Believe me. I wrote more than my fair share.
I won’t bother predicting who will fill Burns’ shoes, but I have 2 recommendations with strong Tennessee ties. First, the Vols should take a long look at Duke assistant head coach/running backs coach Trooper Taylor. Assuming everyone got along well on the staff, Taylor would be the perfect recruit. He has a long history of receiver development and is a tireless scout. Taylor had a few run-ins with the NCAA, but nothing significant. He may not be as tied to recruiting circles as he once was, especially in South Florida, but he has the personality to catch up in days.
The other coach I would suggest to fill the vacancy is Montario Hardesty, who is the running backs coach at South Carolina. Sure, he has ties to Tennessee since he was a traffic jam coach, but he also has recruiting ties to the Carolinas, where he’s from. Hardesty, a native of New Bern, North Carolina, coached in Charlotte before moving to South Carolina last year. He also coached at Florida Atlantic for a guy you might have thrown a golf ball at. Recruiting ties in the Carolinas and South Florida are a great place to start looking for Burns’ replacement.
Some things should be repositioned to accommodate Hardesty. Either he had to train receivers or this position had to be open. Current Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack has coached receivers during his career. If the Vols want Hardesty, they most likely could have him. It would just take a few trips. This type of adjustment is not rocket surgery. There might be a learning curve if Hardesty took on Tennessee receivers, but Taylor has proven it can be done. He coached running backs and receivers on separate occasions for the Vols.
It’s unclear which direction Heupel will go to replace Burns. However, this is not of concern, as similar movements have been in the past. Tennessee is a great place to coach, with great support and incredible optimism around the program. Tennessee is going against its old tradition and becoming what everyone else has been – a short-lived stint for coaches in a transient profession.