Hoke, who has rejoined the head coaching ranks for at least a couple of weeks, said Monday that his his major concern is making sure those upperclassmen get the best possible finish to a disappointing season.
“These last two games are about one thing, and that’s the seniors on this football team,” Hoke said Monday. “They have been part of 29 wins, and they’ve laid the foundation for this program that was badly needed. They’re the ones we play for.”
Tennessee athletic director John Currie named Hoke the Volunteers’ interim coach Sunday after firing Butch Jones , who had a 34-27 record in five seasons. Hoke joined Jones’ staff this year as a defensive line coach and went 78-70 in 12 seasons as a head coach at Ball State (2003-08), San Diego State (2009-10) and Michigan (2011-14).
Currie had other options within Jones’ staff. Offensive coordinator Larry Scott went 4-2 as Miami’s interim head coach in 2015 . Quarterbacks coach Mike Canales was a two-time interim head coach at North Texas. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was a head coach at Columbia from 2003-05.
But it was Hoke who had the most head coaching experience.
“Brady Hoke is a three-time conference coach of the year in three different conferences, has won at the highest level and was a very appropriate choice,” Currie said.
Hoke’s mission is to help Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) earn the Southeastern Conference victory that has eluded the Vols all season. The Vols have never had a winless season in SEC play since the league formed in 1933.
Tennessee hosts No. 21 LSU (7-3, 4-2) on Saturday and Vanderbilt (4-6, 0-6) on Nov. 25.
“We lost a good man,” said Hoke, who considers Jones a longtime friend . “That was the first thing that you deal with from an emotional level, a respect level, a friendship level. Then you’ve got to move forward because if we don’t move forward with our competitiveness and our energy as coaches, then you won’t get that from the players.
“These next two weeks are all about coaching our hearts out and coaching for our seniors on this football team because for many of them, this will be the last football they’ll ever play in their lives.”
Hoke said he would “tweak some things,” but he wouldn’t go into detail on what he would change. Tennessee closed all practices to the media this week. Under Jones this season, the media could watch about 20 minutes of Tennessee’s Tuesday practice sessions.
Michigan fired Hoke after a 5-7 season in 2014 . Hoke has a chance these next two weeks to showcase his ability to lead a program, though he said Monday he hadn’t really thought much about the possibility of becoming a head coach again.
“We’ve got to stay - and I have to stay - in the present because of what we want to accomplish for these seniors,” Hoke said. “To me, that’s what this is all about, finishing out for them in a positive manner.”
Tennessee only needs to look at the opposite sideline for an example at how a team can get a boost from an interim head coach. LSU’s Ed Orgeron has produced two successful stints in that role.
Orgeron went 6-2 as Southern California’s interim head coach in 2013 after the firing of Lane Kiffin. He became an interim coach again last year after the Tigers fired Les Miles and performed well enough to become Miles’ permanent replacement . LSU went 6-2 under Orgeron last season.
Based on his own experiences, Orgeron expects Hoke to have Tennessee playing with intensity.
“They’re going to play over their head,” Orgeron said. “I know this guy. He was a defensive line coach. He’s an inspiring guy. He’ll get them fired up. But we can’t worry about that. Every team that plays LSU is fired up. I think that anytime you go into Neyland Stadium with that crowd and go play a great team like Tennessee, you’ve got to expect their best.”