There is good reason for fans to be upset about how the Kevin Steele situation played out for Tennessee football. The former Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator was brought on staff just as it looked like Jeremy Pruitt was about to be fired.
Less than two months later, Steele is gone after Josh Heupel rounded out his staff. According to AP News, the Vols fired the longtime coach, and he could be paid a buyout of up to $860,870 for those seven weeks on the job.
Given the fact that Tennessee football hired him as Pruitt was under investigation, that just seems like they threw money away at this point. However, a deeper look suggests that Steele provided more value than people realize.
Remember when Steele flew out to California to try to keep Henry To’o To’o on Rocky Top and also brought in Auburn transfer defensive end Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant? Neither may have worked, as To’o To’o transferred anyway and Bryant transferred again, to the UCF Knights.
But if Steele made news with those moves, he likely made news by keeping other people in the program. Although UT lost out on Dylan Brooks and Cody Brown, there are key players they kept in their 2021 recruiting class.
Even after those losses, they maintained a top 20 class and kept elite players like Walker Merrill, KaTron Evans, Aaron Willis, Tiyon Evans, Kaidon Salter and Kaemen Marley. It’s highly possible that in his seven weeks on the job, Steele did his part to keep a lot of the roster together.
If you go back on the dates, Pruitt was fired and Phillip Fulmer announced he was stepping down Jan. 18, and Steele was named interim head coach that day. Danny White was named athletic director Jan. 21, and Josh Heupel was hired Jan. 27, meaning Steele was having to handle the duties for nine days approaching National Signing Day.
Even after Heupel was hired, Tim Banks wasn’t introduced as Tennessee football’s defensive coordinator until Feb. 15, meaning the Vols went a few weeks with Steele being relevant. It’s safe to assume that during those weeks, he kept the program from coming apart.
Imagine if half the class decommitted and the Vols suffered even more transfers. They already had plenty. Steele probably kept the bottom from falling out of the program to a point that Heupel would have walked into an impossible situation.
As a result, while he is being paid for a short period of work, he may have been worth it. UT is still not in the best shape as a program for a new head coach like Heupel to take over, especially with the NCAA investigation looming, but Steele may have done a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure it didn’t get worse.
We’ll never know all of the details of what Steele did during his short period with Tennessee football. What’s clear, though, is that the Vols still maintained a top 20 recruiting class even after losing key signees, and there were more than a couple of solid players deciding to stay within the program. Steele probably had something to do with that.