The Butch Jones era at Tennessee has now officially come to a brutally painful and drawn out conclusion. We finally find ourselves in the midst of a coaching search, which is one of the most exciting things that can happen to a college football fan. The possibilities are endless, the future is (hopefully) bright, and every day brings new rumors and new threads to follow. It’s like waking up on Christmas morning every day except this time, instead of toys, your happiness and mental stability for the next 2-8 years are at stake. The Vols have struggled to get this process right lately, with duds in Dooley and Jones laboring through 8 tough seasons. However, there is no doubt that Butch laid a solid foundation, brick-by-brick (I can now say that without wincing), and that the talent pool at Tennessee is deep. With the right hire, the Vols could begin competing immediately. Is this finally the coaching search cycle where the Vols will land their first choice and not have to risk another hire on an unproven up-and-comer? Time will tell, but Vols fans certainly have an exciting month ahead. Here are some of the Vegas favorites to land the job as well as a few exciting dark horses I can’t pass up the chance to mention.
1. Jon Gruden (+250)
Obviously I couldn’t write this article without leading off with Jon Gruden. Chucky opened at +2000 odds back in October and has now surged to the Vegas favorite at +250. Is this because of inside information or is it just bettors driving up the odds by betting on the exciting name? No one knows. He is also certainly every Vols fan’s number one choice to take over the job. Tennessee connections, NFL pedigree, Super Bowl champion, almost certainly a fantastic recruiter. It’s tough to find a box that Gruden doesn’t check when it comes to picking a new coach. One potential issue is the price tag. #grumors out of Knoxville lately say that Gruden would cost somewhere in the range of $10 million per year. For a program desperately trying to become relevant again, though, price will likely be a minor concern. The other issue is the fact that Gruden might simply not want to come to Knoxville. The guy makes several million sitting in a TV booth once a week and interviewing college quarterbacks every March. He also already has a successful NFL career and a Super Bowl ring to go with it. There may be no amount of money that would coax him out of his cushy ESPN gig and back into the stress of 100 hour weeks. If he wants the job, he’s the guy. Outside of his competitive spirit, though, I don’t see why he would.
2. Chip Kelly (+450)
The second favorite in Vegas to land the job is former Oregon head coach, and more recently, NFL disaster, Chip Kelly. Kelly no doubt showed that his fast paced spread offense could thrive in the Pac 12, but not surprisingly, did not translate well to the NFL. Could that offense work for the Vols? Defenses are certainly better and faster in the SEC than they are in the Pac 12, meaning there are no guarantees that Kelly could have offensive success in Knoxville. He also just doesn’t seem like a good fit culturally at Tennessee, which is admittedly just a gut feeling. Does Kelly have the potential and the ceiling to make Tennessee a perennial 10-win team? Absolutely. Still, Chip Kelly is a name I would absolutely pass on, especially considering the price tag he would demand, when there are so many safer options available.
3. Dan Mullen (+800)
Dan Mullen is the safest of the coaches readily available to Tennessee. He’s like the cliche “safe option” in every romantic comedy that the girl ditches 2/3 of the way through for the sexy, risky guy (think Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ diary or James Marsden in the Notebook). Dan Mullen will make sure you’re taken care of, but you’ll always feel like there’s some excitement missing. Am I underselling what Mullen has done at Mississippi State? Maybe. But I just don’t see Mullen ever averaging more than 8 or 9 wins at best in Knoxville. Mullen might bring some consistency that Butch couldn’t, but the ceiling just doesn’t feel a whole lot higher. If the Vols are content to just contend for the SEC East every year, Mullen is our guy. If they want to go any higher than that, though, I think a slightly riskier play is the move.
4. Bobby Petrino (+1200)
Now things start to get interesting. Petrino is a proven SEC winner posting 10 and 11 win seasons at Arkansas including a BCS berth in 2010. He’s also one of the best developers of quarterback talent in college football with prodigies like Ryan Mallett and Lamar Jackson. The downside? He had a motorcycle accident in 2012 while riding with a recently hired student-athlete coordinator who he was also having an affair with. Personally, who cares? If not for that incident, Petrino would likely still be at Arkansas competing with Alabama and Auburn every year for the SEC West. Petrino would come fairly cheap (he makes $4 million at Louisville), has proven he can succeed in the SEC, and his personal life issues are 5 years behind him. Petrino’s ceiling is close to as high as anyone on this list and he comes with a real SEC track record. He may be a bit of a wild card, but I have no problem rolling the dice on Bobby Petrino. Just keep him away from any motorcycles.
5. Jim Bob Cooter (+2000)
The guy’s name is Jim Bob Cooter. If you think there is anyone more qualified, based on name alone, to lead the Tennessee Volunteers than Jim Bob Cooter, I would love to hear your argument. Outside of that obvious strength, Cooter has major Tennessee ties. He was born in Tennessee, played quarterback at Tennessee, and served as a grad assistant at Tennessee. He also has some serious NFL connections which is always a big boost in recruiting. The downsides? Cooter has zero head coaching experience at any level. There is also the concern of whether he has any interest in leaving the NFL coaching ladder to make the move back to college. Even if Tennessee was to pursue him, the interest may not be there on his end. He also could bolt the second the NFL comes calling again. If the Vols do attempt to pull the trigger, Cooter is an unproven guy with a potentially high ceiling. This is the definition of high risk, high reward. The chance to lock down a longtime Tennessee guy is something worth considering, but I don’t see the Vols taking this big of a risk, especially after two failed hires in a row.
6. Lane Kiffin (+3300)
Remember when Darth Vader met Luke on Bespin in Episode V, revealed he was Luke’s father, and then took off his mask and vowed to work with him and Leia to stop Sidious? Probably because it didn’t happen. But we all would love it if it had. Lane Kiffin coming back to Tennessee is kind of like that. Is there a potentially insurmountable amount of bad blood between Vols fans and Kiffin? Maybe. Has Kiffin ever done anything anywhere that would make Vols fans trust him with the program? Not really. But dammit if the story wouldn’t bring every ounce of hype back to Knoxville. I would probably describe this one as high risk. low reward, but I just can’t help but buy into it.
The next few weeks promise to be exciting on Rocky Top. As a program with a relatively stable modern football history anchored by long serving coaches like Fulmer and Majors, Tennessee is not overly familiar with make-or-break coaching decisions. I, for one, can’t wait to sit back and watch the Vols make maybe the most important decision in the recent history of the program. Will they get it right? Eh. But it will certainly be a fun show to watch.