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VOL. 41 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 17, 2017

UT’s next head coach: Some possibilities

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Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen 68-45 in eight years with the Bulldogs. Proponents say Mullen could do much better with Tennessee’s larger budget, better facilities and bigger stadium.

-- Ap Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

John Currie is eight months into his job as Tennessee’s athletics director and already facing a coaching hire that could define his career.

Currie is leading a search to replace Butch Jones, who was fired last Sunday morning with two games left in the 2017 season.

It wasn’t a surprise move by Currie. Jones was on the hot seat after a 41-0 home loss to Georgia on Sept. 30, and his seat got hotter by the week.

When the Vols (4-6, 0-6 SEC) lost at Missouri 50-17 last Saturday night, Jones’ fate was sealed.

Currie met with Jones the next morning, gave him the pink slip, and met with the media Sunday afternoon. UT’s athletics director wouldn’t say if Jones was given the chance to coach the Vols’ last two games against LSU on Saturday and Vanderbilt on Nov. 25. Both games are at Neyland Stadium.

“We came to a mutual decision about the last couple of games, and I believe it is the right decision for all concerned,” Currie says.

UT associate head coach/defensive line coach Brady Hoke will serve as interim head coach for the LSU and Vanderbilt games.

Currie, meanwhile, will ramp up a coaching search he probably began weeks ago with Jones hanging onto his job.

Currie said he’s not hiring a search firm “at this time” but will lean on his inner circle to make decisions.

His search committee likely will include Jimmy Haslam, Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning, among others. UT chancellor Beverly Davenport will be highly involved.

“I’m very fortunate and blessed that we have a great team internally throughout the department that love and serve the University of Tennessee, many for many years,” Currie says.

Currie is expected to move quickly in hiring a new coach before other jobs open. Florida began its search when Jim McElwain was fired Oct. 29.

At least two other SEC teams, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, are likely to be searching for a new coach at season’s end. Other jobs will open nationwide.

Who’s on Currie’s list? There are plenty of names.

The fan favorite is Jon Gruden, but chances are slim to none Gruden will take the Tennessee job.

Gruden is making millions working for ESPN and Monday Night Football, plus his various endorsement deals. He hasn’t been a college coach since 1991 at Pitt. He won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay’s coach in 2002, and if he returns to coaching, he will probably be in the NFL. His only head coaching experience is in the NFL, where he was 95-81 in 11 years with Oakland and Tampa Bay.

Plus, Gruden turned down Tennessee when Derek Dooley was fired in 2012.

Another big name is Chip Kelly, who posted a 46-7 record at Oregon from 2009-12. Kelly also has a cushy job with ESPN.

He also had an NCAA show-cause while at Oregon, which means any NCAA penalties imposed on him could have been transferred to any school that hired him. That order expired in 2014.

Currie might not want a coach with NCAA baggage, and Kelly might not want to step into the SEC meat-grinder.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino has been mentioned as a potential candidate, but his off-the-field issues would be serious sticking points with Currie. And Louisville (6-4, 3-4 ACC) has slipped with 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

There are far more likely candidates than Gruden, Kelly and Petrino.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is 68-45 in eight years in Starkville, has two Top 20 finishes, and has his 2017 team (7-3, 3-3 SEC) ranked No. 17 this season. Mullen knows the SEC and might welcome a chance to escape the rugged SEC West. However, Tennessee may need to beat out Florida to get Mullen as coach.

The same goes for second-year Central Florida coach Scott Frost. He’s a hot commodity and high on Florida’s list. UCF (9-0) is ranked No. 18 in the nation.

Frost took over a UCF team that went 0-12 in 2015 and posted a 6-7 last season with a bid to the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando. He was an assistant at Oregon from 2009-15, ascending to offensive coordinator in 2013.

Iowa State’s Matt Campbell has coached the Cyclones (6-4) to two victories over two Top 5 teams this year, TCU and Oklahoma.

Campbell was 35-15 as Toledo’s coach from 2011-15 before taking over at Iowa State.

Currie is familiar with Campbell from his Big 12 years as Kansas State’s athletic director (2009-17).

Some of the buzz around Purdue coach Jeff Brohm has been lost with his 4-6 record this year.

Brohm had a good run at Western Kentucky, where he went 30-10 in three seasons (2014-16) before taking the Purdue job.

Currie’s list could include Duke coach and former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente.

Gundy, like Gruden, turned Tennessee down when Dooley was fired. Would he consider the Vols’ job again? Maybe, due to Gundy’s oft-strained relationship with the Oklahoma State administration. Gundy is 112-52 in 12 seasons at Oklahoma State and has the Cowboys (8-2) ranked No. 10 in the nation.

Cutcliffe, 63, was an assistant at Tennessee from 1982-1998 and again in 2006-07 under Fulmer. He’s in his 10th year as head coach at Duke and is a two-time ACC coach of the year. However, UT pursued Cutcliffe for its coaching vacancy in 2009 before hiring Lane Kiffin.

Fuente turned the Memphis program around from 2012-15 before going to Virginia Tech, where his 2016 team went 10-4 with an ACC Coastal Division title and Belk Bowl win. The Hokies are 7-3, 3-3 in the ACC this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone could be a candidate for the Tennessee job, depending on his future in Jacksonville. Marrone was an assistant at UT under Fulmer in 2001 and was head coach at Syracuse from 2009-12.

USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, Tennessee’s starting quarterback for the 1998 national championship team, would be a popular choice for many Vol fans. However, two other assistants, Clemson defensive coordinator Brett Venable and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, might be higher on Currie’s list than Martin.

Venable, Pruitt and Martin have no experience as a college head coach.

Currie didn’t give a direct answer when asked if head coaching experience was needed for the UT job.

“We need to hire the best coach for the University of Tennessee,” Currie said. “There are a lot of different experiences out there that are relevant to our environment. Certainly, we need to hire someone who understands the magnitude that comes along with this job and the opportunities and responsibility that come along with being the head football coach at the University of Tennessee.”

Therein lies the magnitude of Currie’s hiring of a new coach. It looks like a career-defining hire.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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