If he ever coaches again, easier for Jon Gruden to win in NFL than at Tennessee
Butch Jones is a dead man walking. After what we’ve seen this season, there’s no way he’ll be back in 2018 as the head coach at Tennessee.
The Volunteers are a complete mess on the field. Quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano have both disappointed. Their rushing defense is 125th nationally out of 130 teams. Games have been lost late in spectacular fashion.
Off the field, it’s not much better. First Jones got testy with his own fan base, then he did the same with the media. Reports of infighting among players and coaches alike have surfaced. UT is 3-5, and it’s gotten so bad that a grassroots #EmptyNeyland campaign set for Saturday at Neyland Stadium could be another black eye.
The Vols need a big-name coach in order to become a big-name program again, and one of the biggest names in the profession is Jon Gruden.
Despite the fact that he last patrolled the sideline for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008, Gruden has been tied to various coaching vacancies during his nine-year absence. The longer he stays in the broadcast booth, the more his legend grows.
This isn’t the first time that Gruden has apparently been en route to Rocky Top. After an anonymous playing career as a QB at Dayton, he started out as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986. About a decade and a half later, he became the youngest Super Bowl-winning coach of all time. He was only 39 when he led the Bucs to a title.
It’s no secret that Gruden is fond of Knoxville. His wife was a Volunteers cheerleader. He has a son who’s currently a student there.
As far back as 2008, he has been rumored as a candidate for UT’s head-coaching job. It was time to move on from Phillip Fulmer, who won a national championship in 1998, but Gruden was still in Tampa and viewed as an NFL guy.
“I’ve said it from the beginning,” he said at the time, according to ESPN. “This is the only job I’ve really ever wanted. As long as the Glazers will have me, I’ll be here. I’ve got a lot of respect for Tennessee. I grew up down there a little bit. My wife is from there. But this is where I want to be, and I can only make myself that clear.”
Then-athletic director Mike Hamilton ended up hiring Lane Kiffin, but he was only there for 13 months before sneaking off to USC. Hamilton then settled for Derek Dooley, who ran the program into the ground for three years. While Gruden was again linked to the vacancy in 2012, by then he was entrenched as the analyst on “Monday Night Football.”
“I like what I’m doing,” he said at the time, according to Sports Illustrated. “I’m just trying to hang on to the job I have, to be honest with you.”
With Hamilton since resigned, new AD Dave Hart went with Jones. Like previously with Dooley, he wasn’t the school’s first choice.
Now that Jones is all but gone, yet another athletic director, John Currie, is likely trying to woo Gruden. That being said, does he even belong in college? He hasn’t worked at the collegiate level since he was the tight ends coach at Pacific in 1989.
“Too many rules, man,” he told Pewter Report in July. “I mean, I like to work. I don’t like to be working (only) 15 hours a week with players. The recruiting, Facebook, texting, e-mails — all that stuff. Yeah, I’d probably have you in real deep, deep trouble if I was your college coach.”
Gruden is a classic grinder. Those stories you heard about him sleeping in his office and drawing up plays before sunrise are all true. However, would he pound the recruiting trail with the same level of energy and enthusiasm? Can he teach a teenage signal caller the inner workings of Spider 2 Y Banana given the NCAA’s restrictions on practice time?
Dick Vermeil spent 15 years in the booth, almost twice as long as Gruden. That didn’t stop him from coaching again. He won a Super Bowl, too.
However, Vermeil went from NFL coach to NFL broadcaster back to NFL coach. If Gruden were to ever put on a headset again, it would likely be in the pros. He’s more familiar with contracts and the CBA than recruiting and the NCAA rulebook.
“I draw up plays every day,” he said Monday when talking to the official website of the Denver Broncos. “Who knows what life will bring? I haven’t lost a game, though, in a few years, so I got that going for me.”
This is a crucial decision for the Vols. They’ll presumably have an opening at the same time as East rival Florida, which offers a more direct path to the College Football Playoff based on the recruiting footprint alone. Not to mention the fact that Georgia is on a roll right now with second-year coach Kirby Smart, who’s building Tuscaloosa East.
Even for Gruden, the Gators and Bulldogs would make it tough for him to get Tennessee to its first SEC title game since 2007.
Gruden might have an easier time turning around a struggling NFL team than the struggling Volunteers. Struggling NFL teams tend to have high picks and loads of cap space, so improving quickly via the draft and free agency isn’t out of the ordinary.
Not only does UT’s coach have to deal with UF and UGA, but resident West bully Alabama awaits on The Third Saturday in October. Every year on National Signing Day, the Crimson Tide seemingly have a dozen first-round picks. There’s no salary cap in this conference, either. ‘Bama has an endless budget to spend on facilities and assistants.
And if Gruden actually says yes, what if he fails? That would be more of a nightmare for Vols fans than any of those “Chucky” movies.