Maybe Tennessee should have given Derek Dooley another year after all. While the Volunteers’ search for a coach hasn’t had the ups and downs of Arkansas’ search (yet), things are looking pretty rocky right now on Rocky Top. With Mike Gundy rebuffing Tennessee Wednesday morning and Charlie Strong turning down another Vol job offer on Wednesday night – UT will likely claim they never made an offer to either coach, of course — the Vols rolled a pair of snake eyes.
For Volunteer fans in need of some perspective, Alabama was ditched at the altar by West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez in late 2006. Then Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe pulled his name out of contention. Yes, Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe. But then on January 1st, 2007, Tide officials finally met with some guy named Nick Saban. You know the rest.
Earlier this week, many Arkansas fans were screaming for AD Jeff Long’s noggin after the Hogs had apparently been rebuffed by Les Miles, Gary Patterson, Chris Petersen, and Mike Gundy. Then Long landed Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema from out of the nowhere and the AD was once again a hero and the Razorbacks were once again relevant.
In other words, things can change pretty quickly. But that won’t make things easier for Tennessee fans. Their program has a 100,000-seat stadium, a new $45 million football complex, is second all-time to Alabama in terms of SEC titles, and ranks eighth in the nation in all-time football wins. Yet today they were dissed by two coaches, one of which would rather stay at Louisville.
In January of 2010, when Lane Kiffin burned its program to cinders by leaving just a year into his “tenure,” the rushed nature of UT’s search made finding a proven coach almost impossible. Then, there was a reason UT got the cold-shoulder from top candidates. The Tennessee program was a mess.
But this search was supposed to be different. Maybe it will be in the end. But unless Vol AD Dave Hart can pull a Gruden — er, I’m sorry — a rabbit out of his hat a la Long with Bielema, Tennessee fans will be left scratching their heads over how a football program can go from losing four or more games just once between 1989 and 1999 to losing four or more games in each of the last eight seasons (including six or more losses in each of the last five).
They’ll also have to come to grips with why the Tennessee job has become so unattractive that a third-year coach at a school better known for basketball would rather go to the shaky ACC than return to his roots in the big, bad SEC.
So where will Hart turn next? We were told by an industry source Tuesday that North Carolina’s Larry Fedora might be willing to pick up the phone if he thought he had a good shot at landing Tennessee’s job. Wednesday, other outlets reported that Fedora has cooled on the Vol gig.
Today a Knoxville radio host floated the idea of bringing Phillip Fulmer back, but Fulmer actually presided over the Vols’ slide down the mountain. UT didn’t when a league title in his last 10 seasons and he was just 29-21 over his last four years, including two losing seasons.
Gruden? Yeah, that’s the rumor that won’t die. A former colleague of Gruden’s stepped down after successful high school coaching career in Chattanooga last night and that will lead many to fire up the Gruden talk again. But if Gruden were really in the fold and all the rest of this was just a very, very elaborate smokescreen, it’s odd that Tennessee would this week announce that some 2013 season tickets could be had for as little as $300 with no donation required. If Chucky were already in the bag, here’s guessing the Vols would be raising ticket prices instead of dropping them.
That doesn’t mean some big Vol boosters upset with Hart’s handling of the search won’t decide now to make a real run at UT fans’ dream hire.
But if UT’s leaders are smart, they’ll not panic and they’ll instead take their time to criss-cross the country and find the right man for the job. If they’re willing to throw a $4 million Hail Mary and give Georgia a pain in the rear to boot — as Arkansas did to LSU — UT could call up Mark Richt who didn’t get a raise last season, has an incentives-heavy contract, and worked under Hart at both East Carolina and Florida State. Nebraska’s Bo Pelini might be tired of living in Tom Osborne’s shadow as was the case with Bielema and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin.
Or, if Tennessee’s board of trustees would agree to it, the surest bet to win many SEC games is still sitting out there just dying for a contract… and his name is Bobby Petrino.
There are options a’plenty and UT could still turn what’s perceived to be mess into a win just as Alabama did in 2007. Just as Arkansas did this week.
That or Vols could continue to spiral further and further from Rocky Top to rock bottom.