Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • Nov 18, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Hours after Butch Jones’ firing, the first person I saw at church last Sunday night, the song leader, asked me who I thought would be the next UT coach.

I hadn’t given it much thought at that point, though I promptly pooh-poohed the Jon Gruden notion. The Monday Night Football color man somehow has a spell cast on much of Big Orange Nation who want “Chucky”, who began his coaching career as a grad assistant under Johnny Majors and who married a UT cheerleader, to don orange with a headset next fall.

Gruden has publicly debunked all UT rumors through the years, though I’ve read some social media accounts that he is indeed speaking to other coaches about possibly joining his prospective UT staff.

Personally, I think he’s been away from the sideline for too long, even though Dick Vermeil did well after spending almost 15 years rekindling his fire in the broadcast booth after bringing the term “burnout” to the popular lexicon in the early ‘80s. Gruden makes a lot of money in broadcasting and as a vetter of college quarterbacks coming out for the draft. If he is seriously considering leaving MNF, it makes me wonder just how shaky ESPN really is in the wake of people cutting the cord to cable television and high NFL rights fees.

Someone also said he wouldn’t mind seeing Lane Kiffin return to Knoxville, thinking he’s matured based on interviews he’s seen from his Florida Atlantic job. I doubt Lane has matured. Even if he has, too many people in Tennessee still hold a nearly decade-long grudge for his abrupt departure. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

My candidate of choice would be Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. He’s built a winner like no one ever has in Starkville. If he hasn’t won a national championship there, it probably can’t be done. He would have more resources at Tennessee, including a higher salary. Problem is, the same thing is true at Florida, where he was offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer during the Tim Tebow years.

Mullen knows the SEC and is a proven winner. He doesn’t have to pull a big sales pitch like Kiffin and Jones, both of whom could sell water to a drowning man. If Mullen has plenty of style, he has even more substance.

This will be the first football hire for new athletic director John Currie. It’s amusing how many of my colleagues in the media are calling this a crucial hire after three straight misses by his predecessors following the firing of Phil Fulmer, a move made just to prevent what has transpired in Knoxville over the last decade.

How is this a crucial hire? If the next coach also turns out to be a dud, what’s going to happen? Will fans burn their season tickets and their orange jerseys? Will Neyland Stadium play host to Vol games before 100,000 empty seats?

No. UT will not become the next Vanderbilt where generations of losing have left the Commodores playing to half-full crowds in the SEC’s smallest stadium. The worst thing that will happen four or five years from now is what’s happening now and what transpired five years ago when Derek Dooley was run out of town. Fans will get mad, demand a change, eventually get it, fall in love with the next guy and, unless the next guy puts up Nick Saban-like numbers, go through the cycle all over again.

Actually, hiring a head football coach, or a coach in any sport, is like a batting average in baseball. Alabama has had nine head coaches in my lifetime (including Mike Price, who never coached a game in Tuscaloosa), three of whom won national championships. That’s a .333 average, which would make a baseball player an all-star. Oklahoma had three coaches between Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops. Count those two, that’s two out of five, a .400 mark - Ted Williams country.

Tennessee is having an 0-for-3 decade. But the program won’t be relegated to the bench. The AD, whoever he might be, is due for a hit.

Just a question of whether it’s now or five years from now or 10 or…..

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