After Tennessee whiffed on the household names, why isn't Mike Norvell the obvious hire?
It’s fun to dream big.
When you’re a little kid, you say that you want to be an astronaut or a rockstar. You have dreams of walking on the moon or playing the drums in front of a sold-out stadium, but more often than not, they’re just dreams. Eventually, you wake up and realize that there’s a reason such a tiny percent of the population is even capable of doing those things. It takes more than just saying “I want to be an astronaut” to become an astronaut.
But when you fall short of achieving those dreams, it’s time to be sensible about your options. The challenge for dreamers is often figuring out what skills they do possess when that time comes. Can I become a carpenter? Should I be a teacher? What about an electrician?
That’s Tennessee right now.
The Vols had their heads in the clouds reaching for guys like Jon Gruden and Chip Kelly to become their next head coach. That didn’t happen.
Then, Tennessee tried to get sensible. Dan Mullen said “no thanks,” and Greg Schiano was considered Tennessee’s next-best option (at least according to athletic director John Currie). When that option turned into a dumpster fire of a situation, Currie turned elsewhere. David Cutcliffe? Nah, I’m good. Mike Gundy? Not even $42 million could do the trick. Chad Morris was mentioned as a target, then those reports were disputed.
Meanwhile, there remains an in-state who seemed like an obvious choice. Yet unlike everyone else in the free world, he reportedly hasn’t been offered the job.
So why doesn’t Tennessee want Mike Norvell?
Norvell, for those who have only seen his name briefly and not thought twice about doing a Google search, will lead Memphis against Scott Frost’s UCF squad in the American Athletic Conference Championship on Saturday. Norvell’s 10-1 squad — Memphis had a Georgia State game canceled because of Hurricane Irma — has a chance to earn the Group of 5 slot in the New Year’s Six.
The Tigers will post their best win total in school history if they knock off UCF or win a bowl game. In fact, they had just as many victories vs. Power 5 teams as Tennessee this year.
By the way, Memphis only played 1 Power 5 team while Tennessee played 9 … and lost its final 8 contests.
It was after the Tigers took down Josh Rosen and UCLA that Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen reportedly began negotiating an extension for Norvell. That was just 5 months removed from the extension the 36-year-old coach got after his first season at Memphis. So yeah, his athletic director knew he would be a top target at a Power 5 program in no time.
The question was, why isn’t that program Tennessee?
Besides the obvious in-state connection that would be beneficial in recruiting, Norvell would provide the boost at the Vols’ exact area of need — offense. Any offense, really.
Norvell is leading the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense. In his first season at Memphis, he led the No. 15 scoring offense. That year, his offense was good enough to outduel Tom Herman’s Houston squad and prevent it from reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl.
Skeptics would say that Norvell rode Justin Fuente’s coattails to two successful seasons at Memphis. If that were the case, he didn’t do so with first-round NFL draft pick Paxton Lynch, who had to be replaced in Norvell’s first year. And Norvell only got to replace Fuente because of the job he did at Arizona State working with Todd Graham.
It was there that Norvell’s offenses finished an average of 18th in FBS in scoring during his 4 seasons. Graham had Norvell on his staff dating all the way back to his days at Tulsa. When Norvell left Arizona State for Memphis after the 2015 season, Graham’s teams went a combined 12-12. Perhaps not coincidentally, Graham was fired over the weekend.
Norvell’s résumé is worth repeating because it almost feels like Currie and Co. haven’t taken it seriously. Perhaps there’s some “little brother” mantra going on there with big, bad Tennessee refusing to turn to the smaller in-state school. Tennessee is indeed big, and based on the fact that it didn’t win an SEC game, it is indeed bad.
But in the back of my mind, this feels like Tennessee trying to avoid ANY Butch Jones comparisons. Once upon a time, Jones was the up-and-coming, offensive-minded Group of 5 candidate. He wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice, either.
And now, perhaps, Currie wants to avoid history repeating itself. Fortunately for him, we can all agree that we won’t remember this as “another typical coaching search.” That ship sailed somewhere between the Gruden flight tracking and the Schiano protests.
Norvell wouldn’t have had his flights tracked, nor he would have ignited chaos. He has the background as a respected offensive mind and leader in the state. Would he be a boring hire? Perhaps. Would he be the sensible, obvious hire? Definitely. For whatever reason, though, Tennessee is looking elsewhere.
It’s still dreaming, as always.