The news that Tennessee parted ways with coach Butch Jones on Sunday afternoon pushed the college football carousel into overdrive. But the fundamental problem with the Tennessee job – and a strong reason why athletic director John Currie was queasy about firing Jones until it became obvious he had to – is that Florida is set to dictate the market. The rest of the SEC – Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Ole Miss – can line up behind the Gators in their upcoming searches.
Tennessee has been a second-tier program essentially since the decline of Phil Fulmer in the mid-2000s. The emergence of Alabama as the SEC’s alpha dog, the SEC West’s push to dominance and losing 12 of 13 to Florida on the field have solidified Tennessee into SEC also-ran status.
To figure out who Tennessee will hire, it’s necessary to start by peeking at how Scott Stricklin’s first major search as Florida’s athletic director is going. Since firing Jim McElwain on Oct. 29, Florida has started to research candidates behind the scenes.
We wrote the day after the firing that the three prime candidates for that position will be UCF’s Scott Frost, Chip Kelly and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. That trio still remains in focus, with sources indicating that a thorough vetting of Kelly has begun. That includes calls to NFL executives to do general background on Kelly and exploration of his NCAA issues at Oregon.
The timeline of the search may offer the most clues as to how Stricklin will play his hand. Don’t expect Florida to formally reach out or attempt to interview Frost until after the American Athletic Conference title game on Dec. 2. Central Florida (9-0) is blitzing through an undefeated season, and neither side has any interest breaking the sanctity of that run.
Frost, who became a father last week, is locked in on finishing this UCF season. He and his family are genuinely happy in Orlando and like everything about UCF.
When UCF’s season ends, he’ll evaluate his options through the prism of where he’s most likely be able to win a national title. The answer to that would still leave Florida as the most likely option, as the soon-to-be open job at Nebraska, his alma mater, simply doesn’t have the same recruiting base as Florida. Frost has developed a good reputation among high school coaches in the state in a short period, which could lead to a smooth transition to Gainesville.
But who is the first choice? The timeline will likely tell us sooner than later. That’s because Kelly doesn’t have obligations to anyone other than his weekly appearances on ESPN. With sources saying Stricklin is doing his due diligence, the timeline could well unfold this way. If UF has zeroed in on Kelly as its top choice, and he’s reciprocated interest, it’s likely that a deal would come before the AAC title game.
Kelly is a proven commodity, as going 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon established him as one of college football’s most innovative minds of this generation. He’s the surest bet on the board to rejuvenate a program.
There are some quirks to Kelly, many of which revolve around his stated preference of being locked in on coaching his team. Kelly isn’t keen on the booster glad-handing, rubber-chicken banquet speeches and general day-to-day hysteria that come with high-profile coaching jobs. Kelly has a low-key personality off the field, and he’s reiterated to friends that “fit and people” will be the ultimate determinations of where he coaches next.
Kelly wasn’t thought to be intrigued by SEC jobs, but Florida presents a different dynamic as it has more of Kelly’s preferred East Coast vibe. For now, it’s not known if each party is completely sold on each other. But the mutual exploration process is underway.
There’s the sticky matter of a new SEC rule that basically states that any coach with significant NCAA issues in their past stop will require a phone call from the university president to the SEC commissioner to make the hire. In other words, there’d be another layer in the hiring process. Hypothetically speaking, this may give a university pause and perhaps prevent serial cheaters from being hired and running another program that has wound up in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation.
The early read on how administrators at Florida and the SEC perceive the recruiting transgressions during Kelly’s tenure at Oregon is positive for the coach. A safe way to view Kelly’s NCAA issues is that not all show causes are created equally, and his issues at Oregon don’t appear to be a significant hindrance to his potential hiring at Florida. If there were a pattern of misbehavior, it would likely be a bigger issue.
What’s unknown here is where Kelly’s head is. He’s famously reclusive, even to those close to him. He’s been speculatively linked to UCLA, a place where he could potentially hide in plain sight amid the din of Los Angeles. But for now, Jim Mora’s job appears safe, as UCLA is 5-5 with games against USC and California left to qualify for a bowl. There’s little institutional momentum to fire Mora, as he’d be owed nearly $12 million. That’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped school that just hit up its major donors for its recently opened $65 million football facility.
Then there’s the Mullen conundrum. Stricklin is a Mississippi State graduate and just left the school to become Florida’s athletic director a few months ago. He and Mullen had a good working relationship that’s proven mutually beneficial for both. Mullen is one of the country’s top-paid coaches at $4.5 million per year, golden handcuffs that have perhaps kept him in Starkville longer than a coach of his caliber would normally stay. It’s a difficult place to win, as no coach has left MSU without being dismissed since Darrell Royal in 1956.
Mississippi State played Alabama toe-to-toe on Saturday night, losing 31-24 after Alabama scored the winning touchdown with 25 seconds left. State will likely return 18 starters next year and could compete for the league title, which means Mullen will be judicious. (Why go to Tennessee or Texas A&M if he can win the SEC where he is at?) There’s a general feeling among the senior Florida staff that they’ve bungled the past two hires (Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain), which includes regret of not engaging with Mullen. Stricklin and Mullen had a solid working relationship in Starkville, but Mullen-to-Florida still seems an unlikely marriage because of all the complicated relationships and cross-pollination involved.
So that brings us to Tennessee, and the early read on the Vols’ search is that they’re not going to be able to lure a big name. Cross off the above three names as candidates, as they can all do better or have better situations. (Playing Alabama in a crossover game every year hurts the perception of this job nationally).
So who is realistic at Tennessee? Anyone who mentions Jon Gruden in any capacity should be charged with journalistic negligence. The best window into how Currie thinks may be to study his last major search at Kansas State. Currie hired Bruce Weber, a generally successful and solid X’s-and-O’s coach who’d been fired at Illinois.
Weber wasn’t a splashy hire, but Currie wanted a coach who wouldn’t be overmatched or intimidated looking down the sideline at veteran coaches like Bob Huggins, Bill Self or Rick Barnes. Who fits the category of not being afraid to stare down Nick Saban? Well, it’s a short list. Let’s start by crossing off Iowa State’s Matt Campbell ($9 million) and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente ($6 million) because of the size of their buyouts. Neither appear eager to leave, either.
The first grouping that should be considered are veteran, successful coaches that fit the mold of Weber. TCU’s Gary Patterson, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano all have enough experience. All would need a detailed offensive plan, as none bring expertise on that side of the ball. Washington State’s Mike Leach falls into this category as well, but would the straight-laced Currie welcome the relentless quirkiness of Leach? That feels like an unlikely pairing.
As for sound younger coaches, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Memphis’ Mike Norvell would be the best fits. Brohm’s buyout is $4 million after Dec. 5 and he has the offensive acumen that’s been desperately missing in Knoxville for the past decade. Norvell has Memphis on track for the AAC title game, and his wide-open offense would be a salve to the dreary units Tennessee has trotted out in recent years.
As has been proven on the field for the past decade, Florida is well ahead of Tennessee. And in their searches, that’s going to remain the case.
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