I have no idea who Tennessee’s next coach is going to be, and no idea what percentage is reasonable to believe on Jon Gruden. Things seem to be further down the road with Gruden than they were five years ago, but that doesn’t mean that road is going somewhere. Was there a 3% chance in 2012, and now there’s a 15% chance? That’s five times more likely this time around…and still far more likely than not the answer is no.
So, what if the answer is no?
There seems to be a narrative developing that the Tennessee fan base is so infatuated with Gruden, we will accept no substitutes. In a conversation on the Sports Source yesterday, Jimmy Hyams said, “A very prominent booster told me recently that two coaches that you might think would be on the list said they’re not interested, because of all this uproar.”
You can choose your level of obsession in this search. As no one seems to know exactly what John Currie is thinking anyway, you can wait it out or check in at the end of each day. Or you can burn through an F5 button or two chasing down every last rumor. But no matter how passionately one chooses to follow the #Grumors, and no matter how crazy they may get (and it doesn’t get much crazier than Calhounsgate), a couple of things should ultimately make 2017’s uproar much more sensible.
One, the perception five years ago was that Tennessee didn’t make a full effort to land Gruden. I don’t know much reality this perception truly represents, but the idea that Gruden would have commanded more money than Tennessee was willing to pay at the time was prevalent. The November 2012 report from Stephen Hargis at the Chattanooga Times-Free Press specifically mentioned pay for Gruden’s potential staff as a point of contention.
Other journalists disputed that story, and we’ve seen something similar this year. John Brice and GoVols247’s Grant Ramey reported the Vols flew to Tampa last week to pitch to Gruden again. This story too has been disputed. But a report like this can go a long way in the perception of Tennessee’s search, even if John Currie is introducing someone else at a press conferene. Whatever it’s worth, the tone on Tennessee message boards this week has also shifted from five years ago. There is a much greater sense that if the Vols are making the pitch, this time they’re making it knowing the cost. That if Jon Gruden chooses to stay in the NFL or on Monday Night Football, it won’t be because of anything Tennessee didn’t do.
And hey, it’s no sin to say no. If Gruden doesn’t want to coach in college, okay. You can’t make the man do something he doesn’t want to do.
This is where the other significant difference from five years ago would come in: Dave Hart introduced Butch Jones after reportedly missing out on Charlie Strong at the last minute. On the morning of December 5, Charlie Strong was the front-runner. On the evening of December 5, Strong stayed at Louisville. And on the evening of December 6, it became clear Butch Jones would get the offer from Tennessee.
Again, so much of this is perception. Charlie Strong was at Louisville, had been at Florida as defensive coordinator, and was a popular choice among Tennessee fans. Butch Jones was at Cincinnati, had been at Central Michigan, and was viewed as a hurried reactionary move when the Vols lost out on Strong.
Whenever people make a big deal about Dave Hart being asked about Jon Gruden at Butch’s first press conference, I always wonder if the same questions would have been raised if Hart was introducing Strong. Even with the perception that the Vols didn’t fully pursue Gruden, Strong would have been an A hire; he got one of the most coveted jobs in football a year later. Butch Jones felt like having to settle, and the worst way to settle is to not know for sure if you could’ve had the one you really wanted.
This time, I think we’ll feel like we took our shot at Gruden. And this time, Tennessee has a better chance to make a better hire that isn’t him.
It doesn’t have to be from that conference champion proven winners list (Jimbo Fisher, Gary Patterson, Chris Petersen, etc.), the guys you call just in case. If John Currie is introducing Dan Mullen next week? That’s a win for Tennessee. If Scott Frost can somehow be pulled from Nebraska? That’s a W. Or perhaps John Currie has something else up his sleeve. There are good hires out there, and if Tennessee made a serious pitch at Gruden’s level, it gives one confidence in this administration to do the same elsewhere.
There is, of course, a less proven group of names further down your hot board from which a good coach may emerge. But there are simply more questions with this group, which will mean more questions for John Currie and the administration if the search gets this far down the list. Especially if Chip Kelly is at Florida.
But the uproar is understandable for a program that wants to win. For a decade, Vol fans have been left with no other choice but patience. Alabama went 10 years between Stallings and Saban, but Mike DuBose won the SEC in 1999 and Mike Shula won 10 games in 2005. Notre Dame went 13 years between Holtz and Kelly, but Ty Willingham won 10 games in 2002 and Charlie Weis made back-to-back BCS bowls his first two years. Other proud programs had brief peaks in otherwise lengthy valleys. In 10 years, Tennessee has done no better than a pair of 9-4’s under Butch Jones that both felt disappointing because they were. Tennessee fans are tired of being asked to be patient, which is a big part of Gruden’s allure. Gruden feels like winning today! But I believe there are other good hires out there to make us believe we will be a winner tomorrow.
I believe the uproar will also ultimately subside, not because the Vols hire Gruden, but because fans can believe the Vols did their due diligence and will put themselves in position to make a good hire. Every fan base has its unhealthy edges; coaching search + message boards + Twitter + 10 years isn’t the formula for our best selves.
But I also believe all this uproar isn’t the best way you judge a fan base; it’s selling 96,000 tickets and having many of those thousands cheer in the rain for a winless SEC team at the end of a forgettable season. That’s Tennessee. That’s a fan base a good coach will discover is a blessing, not a curse.
And I’m hopeful that’s exactly what Tennessee will get.