For 32 straight seasons, University of Tennessee football fans followed their team with the knowledge that its head coach knew exactly what it was to wear the orange and white and play in Neyland Stadium.
First came former Volunteers star running back Johnny Majors, the former Heisman Trophy runner-up who coached UT from 1977-92. Then came former Vols offensive lineman Phillip Fulmer, who was unceremoniously promoted to replace his former boss in a polarizing decision that still rankles some Vols fans.
Then again, the dismissal of Fulmer following the 2008 campaign is still a decision made by then-athletic director Mike Hamilton that bothers Vols fans as well, especially considering the past four seasons have included a one-and-done by Southern Cal-bound Lane Kiffin and three years of futility that ended this season with the firing of Derek Dooley. Four years ago, many felt Fulmer had enough coaching equity in the bank at UT, including a national championship, to at least have the chance to coach his way out of the valley the program had reached.
As once-proud UT football has spiraled downward, the remainder of the Southeastern Conference has strengthened, especially when it is noted that the last six national champions have come from four SEC teams (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU). Even Vanderbilt has surpassed UT for the time being and is headed to consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.
All that makes the hiring of the next UT head football coach by athletic director Dave Hart the most important hire in program history. This time, the school can’t settle for an unproven head coach like it did when they hired Dooley.
If you run all the desired attributes through the tumbler, you come up with names like Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, Louisville coach Charlie Strong, Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville and former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. Other current head coaches whose names have been mentioned in connection with the job include Baylor’s Art Briles, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora (the former MTSU offensive coordinator), Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Miami’s Al Golden, Cincinnati’s Butch Jones, UCLA’s Jim Mora Jr., Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads and Washington’s Steve Sarkisian.
Outside of those parameters, the ever-present name of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, who probably will have too many requirements for UT to fill; and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the next head coach to eventually leave Saban’s staff.
The best hire of the bunch, if they can lure him from the cow bells of Starkville, would be Mullen, the former Meyer wing man at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. After that, Strong would be the best choice, although he only has three years of head coaching experience at Louisville but years of coaching and recruiting the southeast with assistant stops at Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss.
The speculation for the hire now becomes full bore with the UT season finally over. And the way Hart has played the Dooley firing and subsequent days close to the vest, the announcement will come when Hart is good and ready.
Greg Pogue is host of the Wendy’s First Quarter on 102.5-FM The Game ESPN Radio Nashville. E-mail him at GregPogue@1025thegame.com.