by Nick Rapier
“Wish that I was on old Rocky Top, down in the Tennessee hills…” seems to be a song that fewer and fewer coaches are singing. This once prestigious program has posted only one winning season (7-6 in 2009) in the past five. I am sure that this has the Volunteer faithful’s stomachs churning and hearts yearning for vast improvement. During the 2012 campaign head coach Derek Dooley amassed a 4-7 record before being fired following a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt that left the fan base in shambles. Jim Chaney was promoted from offensive coordinator to interim head coach thereafter and led the Vols to a victory over rival Kentucky to end the season. One thing is for sure in The Volunteer State, the search for a new coach has already begun and will continue.
The tradition of UT is sure to bring interest from several coaches nationwide, although perhaps not as much interest as they would like. Let us examine the pros and cons of this job and deduce which candidates are legitimate and which are not. First and foremost, the University of Tennessee has a rich football tradition with a passionate following. They play many of their games on national television as part of the SEC’s first class media deals. Neyland Stadium holds 102,455 people (official capacity) and has undergone extensive renovations including $136.4 million from 2004-2010 and another $547,000 in 2012. This obvious commitment to the football program will attract the attention of a multitude of medium to high profile coaches. While being in the SEC is beneficial in terms of revenue sharing, national exposure, and recruiting, there are also a few negatives about playing in the Southeastern Conference. The biggest of those negatives is of course playing so many of the nation’s best teams each and every year. While this is a challenge, it invites coaches with competitive egos towards the SEC, perhaps one of the reasons for the conference’s sustained dominance.
It was reported in the recent weeks that perhaps Jon Gruden was interested in the coaching vacancy at Tennessee because of his past ties to the program, but those reports now seem to be more fantasy than reality. Bobby Petrino, probably the second person on the Volunteer wish list, seems to be unlikely as well due to the SEC’s negative feelings towards the less than moral coach. The first realistic candidate for Tennessee seems to be Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. I don’t need to list his achievements for you to understand how well he has done in that position. Smart also recently made it public that he was ready to be a head coach somewhere. Another name that is always thrown around for head coaching vacancies in recent years is Chris Petersen. For those who are not aware, Petersen is the guy who has led Boise State to national prominence over the last several years. While it seems unlikely he would leave Boise at this point due to his refusal of jobs in the past, the lure of the SEC could be strong enough to sway him.
In reality only Dave Hart (Tennessee athletic director) and those well connected with the program know precisely what move they plan to make. With all of the coaching vacancies that have opened up during the 2012 football season it shall be an interesting offseason as universities scramble to hire the right coach. More likely candidates for UT include Gary Patterson (TCU head coach) and Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia head coach). In a matter of weeks we will see where the coaching carousel places head coaches throughout the country. Tennessee will always (unless further regression continues) be an attractive coaching position. Coaches like coaching in the SEC. They have egos just like the rest of us, and the SEC certainly puts them in the national spotlight. Perhaps they should give Phillip Fulmer a call and beg for his return (extremely unlikely), because one thing is for sure… Jon Gruden is not walking through that door.