i don't know whether gruden is the ticket for the vols, but he comes with something more than a last name. if he's hired, my first reaction won't be 'what in hell were they thinking?' that's a big change from the last hire.
On Sunday, CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora claimed Arkansas and Tennessee were both targeting ex-NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden for their coaching vacancies. Two nights ago, KTHV -TV in Little Rock reported that Arkansas had officially offered Gruden its head coaching job.
Rumors of a Gruden hire have swirled at both schools for more than a month with various fans and friends of friends of friends claiming that both Gruden-to-Arkansas and Gruden-to-Tennessee were done deals, depending, of course, on which said of the Arkansas/Tennessee border you stood.
Numerous sources from the Natural State have indicated elsewhere — and specifically to MrSEC.com last night — that Gruden politely turned down the advance from the Razorbacks. Ron Higgins of The Memphis Commercial-Appeal — a city that straddles said border — reported the following on Twitter last night:
With Tennessee in the on-deck circle at this point, MrSEC.com was told by an industry source this morning that it might not take a “mind-blowing” offer to land Gruden.
As everyone knows by now, the Super Bowl-winning coach began his career as a grad assistant at Tennessee in the mid-80s and married an ex-UT cheerleader who still has family in the Knoxville area. Those ties could be causing Gruden — who’s spoken with Tennessee during previous searches — to lean more in the Vols’ direction this time around.
According to the source we spoke with today, Gruden and his agent are no longer asking for $50 million in guaranteed money over 10 years as had been widely speculated/reported in East Tennessee over the past few weeks. If true, perhaps Gruden is willing to give UT a “hometown” discount on account of his wife and in-laws. It’s also possible that the coach believes he could use his national celebrity to earn a good deal of cash over-and-above his Vol salary through national advertisements (he’s currently a pitch man for Hooters).
Various ex-Volunteer players — most from the 1990s and the Peyton Manning era — are claiming that Gruden is now a lock for the Tennessee job. One of the sources we spoke with this morning wouldn’t go that far, but he did say that the ex-Buccaneers coach appears to be “intrigued” by the idea of trying his hand at the college game. According to the industry source, the coach is so interested in Tennessee that it might only take an offer in the area of $4 million per season to land him. “Only $4 million” is still ridiculous money and such a deal would still place Gruden behind only Urban Meyer ($4.3m at Ohio State), Bob Stoops ($4.5 m at Oklahoma), Mack Brown ($5.3m at Texas), and Nick Saban ($5.4m at Alabama) in terms of college football coaching salaries.
Multiple outlets have reported that Gruden has already spoken with a number of potential assistant coaches regarding a possible move to Tennessee. Popular rumors in the Volunteer State have tied him to current Duke defensive coordinator and D-line coach Marion Hobby as well as current Southern Cal receivers coach Tee Martin, both former Vol players.
Our industry source indicated that Gruden has spoken with at least one ex-head coach about joining his staff. That would make sense seeing as how the coach hasn’t been in the college ranks himself since an assistant coaching gig at Pittsburgh way back in 1991.
If you do the math on what ex-head coach might be on Gruden’s wish list, you’ll likely arrive at Ron Zook who was on the same Tennessee staff with Gruden under Johnny Majors in 1986.
The 58-year-old Zook has been a head coach at Florida and Illinois. He’s served as a defensive coordinator with Cincinnati, Kansas, Florida, and the New Orleans Saints. He also has a reputation for being a solid recruiter.
But before Tennessee fans start counting their Grudens before they hatch, there are still three potential snags that could nix the deal:
1. Gruden could decide to stay at ESPN where the livin’s easy rather than going all-in with a college coaching job.
2. Gruden could decide — even though he’s “intrigued” with the idea of coaching college ball — to wait for an NFL job to come open. Several probably will. And most of those owners will probably have some interest in Gruden. But would Gruden wait for a possible NFL situation rather than take on the role of hero at Tennessee. A bird in the hand, as they say.
3. Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart might not want to go down the Gruden road.
Hart is the wild card in this equation. Despite rumors that the Gruden is already hired by the Vols and Hart had no say in the matter, we’ve heard from multiple sources at UT and in the industry that he is indeed calling the shots on this one. And he’s keeping his cards clutched tightly to his chest.
Have Tennessee’s biggest boosters talked to Gruden, gauged his interest, and reported back to Hart? Yes. But Hart still has to a) decide to close the deal and b) actually close the deal if/when he decides to do so.
From what we at MrSEC.com have been told, there’s a feeling Hart would resign and throw Tennessee’s athletic department into even more of a mess should someone try to force his hand. He’s been hired to do a job and he wants to be allowed to do it. Makes sense.
But if Gruden is truly “intrigued” and — as one source told us today — “can be had, if UT wants him,” then Hart had better think long and hard before going in any other direction. In reality, a proven college coach might be a safer and more successful long-term hire than a pro coach. Especially a pro coach with a reputation for not liking NFL rookies and youngsters. But Volunteer fans have tabbed Gruden as their savior-to-be. Only Bob Stoops would trump Gruden in most fans’ eyes.
So Arkansas has taken its swing and missed. The ball is now reportedly sitting on a tee for Tennessee and waiting to be hit. If Hart chooses to walk away from Gruden Field and take a swing elsewhere, he’d better be sure he hits a home run. Otherwise, Tennessee’s biggest boosters will be looking for a new coach and a new AD the next time around.
SIDENOTE — If you’re growing tired of all the Gruden talk, he was spotted in Fayetteville recently. Enjoy the link.