Athletic Director Dave Hart took a lot of heat for his handling of Tennessee’s coaching search after the firing of then head coach Derek Dooley. Rumors that a secret deal with former NFL coach and one time Tennessee graduate assistant Jon Gruden had been secretly reached started running rampant on message boards weeks before Dooley was fired. The Gruden rumors, or “Grumors” as many fans and media personalities called them, continued up until the moment that Tennessee announced Butch Jones as their new head coach. The coaching search was one of the strangest you’ll ever see. It all came to a climax when late one night in December the Times Free Press ran a story that the new owner of the Cleveland Browns, and Tennessee alumni and mega-booster, Jimmy Haslam had offered Gruden an ownership stake in the Browns if he agreed to become Tennessee’s head coach. The next morning Gruden appeared on the “Mike and Mike Show” on ESPN via phone and was asked about the rumors. Gruden quickly laid those rumors to rest and declined to discuss the issue further.
Gruden has been known for his flirtations with various collegiate programs and NFL teams over the years. He waited until after all coaching vacancies had been filled this year to make an official statement on the matter saying that he would definitely returning to his gig as a color analyst on Monday Night Football in 2013. I believe it’s safe to say at this point that Gruden enjoys the attention and being courted.
The biggest mistake Dave Hart made with Tennessee’s coaching search was not addressing the Gruden rumors. The fan base got their hopes up for something that was never more then a pipe dream. While Hart admits that the athletic department did reach out to Gruden, it’s likely that Hart knew very early on that Gruden was never a realistic option.
Dave Hart’s handling of the Gruden situation wasn’t the only mishandling of the coaching search. Rumors abounded of a meeting with Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy. Gundy was always an unlikely option as he was coaching at his alma mater in his home state.
Shortly after Tennessee received an official no from Gundy, several outlets reported that Louisville head coach and former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong would be the new head coach at Tennessee. Strong didn’t do much to refute any rumors, days before he declined to answer any questions about the rumors at a press conference. The day after the rumors Strong met with his team and eventually the story broke that Strong had decided to remain at Louisville.
Enter Butch Jones.
Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones had turned down offers from Kentucky, Purdue and Colorado in the previous days leading up to his hiring as head football coach at Tennessee. It almost seemed as if the script had been written for Jones to take the Tennessee job. Jones previously had great things to say about Tennessee when he lead the Bearcats against the Volunteers in 2011 at Neyland Stadium. It was apparent that Jones loved the atmosphere in Knoxville.
Butch Jones should’ve been in Tennessee’s top two all along. They should’ve never went after “splash” options like Gruden and Gundy. After hiring a coach with a less then stellar resumé like Derek Dooley, Tennessee wanted to hire a name that would get the fan base excited, instead of shifting their focus to the on the field product. Dave Hart eventually got to this point, but by this time many Vols fans were frustrated and the hiring of Jones was disappointing to many.
When you take a look at Jones’ record as a football coach you find someone that was more then qualified. He had a 50-27 career record as head coach and had proven to be a winner wherever he went. A lot of people suggested that the only reason he was successful as a head coach was because he was following in Brian Kelly’s footsteps. This is a common misconception. Not just anyone can step in and be a good coach, even with talent. A great example of this is current North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora. Fedora coached at Southern Mississippi in 2011 and went 12-2, this year under new head coach Ellis Johnson Southern Mississippi went 0-12. Every situation is different of course, but Jones showed that he could be a solid coach on his own, leading Cincinnati to back to back first place finishes in the Big East.
A good record as a head coach isn’t the only reason Butch Jones should’ve been high on Tennessee’s list. As mentioned earlier Jones turned down multiple job offers, waiting on the chance to be interviewed by Tennessee. Butch Jones is a man that truly wanted to be in Knoxville. When he said during his introductory press conference that Tennessee was his “dream job” a lot of people discounted that as press conference banter, that he was just “saying the right things”. Two months into his tenure as head coach it’s apparent that this is Butch Jones’ dream job. He’s embraced the tradition of Tennessee. He’s embraced the former players. He’s brought back the family atmosphere that was missed in Knoxville the past few years. Former players finally feel welcome again to attend practices and mingle with the team. Jones and his staff have even used social media to reach out to fans and build excitement for the program. The interaction with fans was something that didn’t happen under the previous staff, and is a welcome change and furthers that family atmosphere beyond the current team, and former players to the Volunteer fan base.
Dave Hart got the hire right, even if the way he went about it created one of the strangest coaching searches in recent history. Butch Jones should’ve been at the top of Tennessee’s list from the beginning. It’s understandable why he wasn’t. Little was known about the coach from Saugatuck, Michigan. Now that he’s been on the job for two months it’s obvious that Jones is up to the challenge to lead Tennessee back to prominence. Tennessee fans hope that Jones is the guy that finally breaks the Vol’s losing streaks to Florida and Alabama so Volunteer fans can finally sing Rocky Top all night long in celebration.