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Replacing Butch Jones: Breaking Down Tennessee's Potential Head Coach Candidates

A bevy of names are already being floated for Tennessee's head coaching vacancy. Who has the inside track at landing the big job?

As we first reported Sunday morning, Butch Jones is out at Tennessee. That makes two very attractive coaching vacancies already out there in the SEC East, with Florida parting ways with Jim McElwain before the season was over. Jones inherited a mess from Derek Dooley and made the Vols better, but he couldn’t break through and get to the SEC Title Game and this year, with a lot of inexperience, especially at QB, Tennessee backslid at the worst possible time for the veteran coach.

There are going to be some very, very intriguing names associated with this search. Let’s start with the white whale of the Vols search: Jon Gruden. He’s making a fortune from ESPN and in endorsements as connected to his Monday Night Football gig. He’s been linked to many other coaching vacancies in the past at the college and pro level, but hasn’t budged for any of them. Would he actually leave this time, and for a college job? He hasn’t been a college coach since 1991 back at Pitt. He once was a Vols grad assistant and his wife was a cheerleader there. He won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. Who knows how he’d be as a college head coach? The hunch here is he’d be a good recruiter. He’s got a dynamic personality. He’s extremely charismatic. He also has tons of name and face recognition. How hard would he grind at it? His work ethic suggests he would be a force. He also has spent a lot of time with Jones over the past few years so he should be pretty versed in the Vols program—both good and bad.

But would he actually take it? I’ve asked around. I honestly don’t know at this point. My hunch is it’s probably more a case of wishful thinking around UT and just that time of year on the rumor mill.

While we’re talking big fish, let’s consider Chip Kelly, another guy turned TV star. ESPN’s new King of the Telestrator has proven to be an insightful analyst but I can’t see him staying away from coaching too much longer. We know he can win big in college. He was 46-7 at Oregon. There isn’t a sharper offensive mind in football, college or pro. He’d also be something of a bargain considering he’s still getting paid a lot by the Niners. Worth noting the SEC now has a rule that if a school wants to hire a coach with some NCAA baggage (Kelly had a show-cause back at Oregon), they would need commissioner Greg Sankey’s blessing. I’m told that would not be a sticking point though if Tennessee opted to go this route. Would Kelly want it? Not sure. This is a big job, but it’s the quintessential SEC fish bowl coaching job. That part of it might give him pause.

We should point out there could be some crossover with the Gators vacancy, and that could be an interesting situation with a guy I’ve heard UT brass likes: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. He is a terrific offensive coach and that's something that should play well at a place that has really been shaky for awhile. Mullen’s paid well at MSU making around $4.5. I suspect the Vols could—and would--pay more. He’s 68–45 at a program that is the toughest to win at in the SEC West, and the Bulldogs gave No. 1 Alabama all they could handle this weekend. As I wrote with the UF job, it's hard to think he can do much better in Starkville than he already has, and that includes two top-20 finishes in his eight previous seasons. If he can’t get UF, this would be a terrific alternative for a guy who knows the SEC very well.

Like Mullen, UCF’s Scott Frost figures to get a very close look from Florida. I’ve heard he’s high on the Gators radar. You have a stronger recruiting base around UF than the Vols have, but both have more players around them than his alma mater Nebraska. I think either of these jobs would be hard for the Chip Kelly protege to turn down.

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Matt Campbell is one of the guys who will be competing with Frost for national coach of the year honors. He did a terrific job at Toledo and he’s doing an even better one at Iowa State, where he has led the Cyclones to two wins over Top Five opponents this year. Vols AD John Currie also knows the Ohio native from his days in the Big 12 at Kansas State. The downside: Campbell has a hefty buyout that’s said to be close to $9 million.

Two guys who are Top 10-caliber coaches but don’t have much geographical connection here are TCU’s Gary Patterson and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who has won consistently both in the Mountain West and now in the Pac-12. Whittingham has spent his coaching career on the West Coast, but his teams are always physical and play hard. I’m always surprised more schools don’t at least try and see if he’s got some interest in their vacancies. Patterson has the Horned Frogs rolling. He's done a marvelous job there and they've upgraded the facilities dramatically for him. They've even built him a statue. But, it's no secret that he'd listen if it's a program that he felt gave him a much better chance at winning national titles.

Mike Leach is another veteran coach who has proven over a long period of time he can get big results from a place that was idling along. Leach has more of a connection to the SEC, having been an OC at Kentucky some 20 years ago. His offense set SEC records back then. He also coached at Valdosta State and he could be in play at Nebraska as well. He could provide a big jolt in Knoxville.

A promising start followed by a skid in the second half of the season has taken some of the buzz off Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, but I think he still might be an option here. He’s a very well-regarded offensive mind who won big at Western Kentucky before putting some life into the listless Boilers' operation.

Former Clemson OC Chad Morris has done a really good job turning SMU back into a winner. I know his name comes up with a lot of jobs in his native Texas, but he’s someone I could see the Vols givng some consideration to.

Colorado State’s Mike Bobo knows the SEC well from his days at Georgia and he’s done a good job with the Rams. Both he and Memphis’s Mike Norvell are on a lot of people’s radar. Geographically, they make sense. I could see them more in play for Ole Miss, but they might get a look from the Vols.

One other wild-card candidate is Ohio State DC Greg Schiano. He made Rutgers respectable after years of ineptitude. He’s very smart, is extremely organized and has picked up some good things from his time under Urban Meyer. He interviewed for the USC vacancy a couple of years ago and has turned down some other decent head coaching opportunities in the past year-plus. I’m told there is some interest in him.