If Derek Dooley's Vols lose at South Carolina this weekend, his tenure as Tennessee coach will come to a merciful close. That's because like Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer before him, Dooley will be fired after a South Carolina loss and allowed to coach out the remainder of the season. The Vols would still have a decent chance of finishing with four straight wins -- although I doubt they would -- and rather than allow optimism to build over beating mediocre teams, I suspect Dave Hart will elect to end the Dooley era.
Presently Dooley has posted a 4-16 SEC record, having gone just 1-11 in his last 12 SEC games. So far Dooley's wins are Vanderbilt twice, Ole Miss once, and Kentucky once. (Dooley also lost to Kentucky the other time, meaning that the Vols have won a single SEC game in nearly two years, an overtime win against Vanderbilt). If you think that sounds bad, it can get worse, Lane Kiffin won the same number of SEC games in his lone season as head coach, four, as Dooley has in three years for the Vols. Meanwhile, Phil Fulmer, the national championship winning coach who was fired at Tennessee in 2008, won three games SEC games in his final season, seven the year before in 2007.
So Fulmer won ten games in his final two seasons at Tennessee. In the four years since he left the Vols have won eight.
Now Tennessee, a program that had just two coaches for over thirty years, is likely to embark on its third head coaching search in the past four seasons.
And this question looms largest of all, will Jon Gruden take the Tennessee job and become Tennessee's own Nick Saban, the coach who rides to the rescue to return the program to legitimacy?
If Tennessee pays enough, I think there's a decent chance Gruden is in Knoxville next year.
Dooley, like Mike Shula at Alabama, was a panicked hire. A head coach with a family name behind him, a great head of a hair, and a suspect resume, took over one of the top jobs in college football.
And disaster ensued.
How bad has it been?
Derek Dooley is Mike Shula without the wins.
Near the end of Shula's tenure, the Nick Saban to Alabama rumors began to emerge. Initially, everyone said there was no way Saban would leave the MIami Dolphins for the Crimson Tide. Saban even famously hectored the media by saying he would not be the head coach at Alabama.
We all know how that turned out.
I've been telling y'all for several months that Gruden would be in play for the UT job.
Now I'm not saying Gruden is going to be the next Tennessee coach, just that he's going to be actively pursued by the Vols and that he'll be their top target. And that he'll listen and weigh the Vols offer.
Here's why UT has to do whatever it takes to get him in orange. And here's why Gruden will listen:
1. Gruden's wife, a UT grad, is from East Tennessee and would be open to the move.
For those of us who are married, this is a big deal. Gruden knows the power of the Tennessee brand and program, having begun his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors. His wife, who he met while he was on campus, is a former Vol cheerleader.
Here's Gruden talking about his time at Tennessee from this past April.
But if Gruden is going back to the mines as a full-time football coach, his family has to adjust to life without dad around as much. Is there a better way to adjust than by being surrounded by your wife's family?
2. He can always go back to television.
Immediately everyone says, why would Gruden leave Monday Night Football?
The answer is easy, because coaching is his first love and he can always return to television. Trust me, Gruden's marketability in television is not going to be hurt by going back to coaching. He can do television for the next twenty years or he can coach for seven or eight more and then do fifteen more years of television.
Gruden is just 49 years old. Is he really going to be a television lifer like John Madden? That's hard to believe, right? Coaching is in his blood, he's going to coach again someday, look at how much he loves breaking down film, interacting with players.
He's not done.
Nowhere close to it.
3. Why would Gruden go to college?
Because you can dominate in college in a way you can't at the pro level.
Winning is fun.
Plus, dominating in the SEC makes you more famous than the vast majority of NFL coaches. Quick, how many football fans can name the current coach of the Miami Dolphins?
If you coach at a top program in college, you actually get more attention than most NFl coaches do.
The NFL is a grind, even the best coaches post records right around .500. Every week you go up against coaches who have pretty similar talent to your own. But in college you can sign seven or eight first round picks every year.
In college a great coach can truly dominate.
Gruden could dominate.
What's more, he could become an icon. Gruden won a Super Bowl in Tampa and he's already forgotten by Bucs fans. Win a title at UT and you get a program's undying adulation.
Make no mistake about it, coaches have big egos and on-campus jobs stroke those egos much more than NFL gigs.
4. The Vols are in pretty good shape in terms of their roster.
Dooley has stabilized the Tennessee program just like Mike Shula did at Alabama.
Hell, every single player on UT's starting offensive roster this year will probably get drafted into the NFL. If Gruden could persuade Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, and Cordarrelle Patterson to return for one more year, he'd start his coaching career at Tennessee with a top twenty team.
From there, the path to winning is pretty rapid.
This isn't a rebuilding job anymore.
5. Gruden would recruit like a superstar.
Yep, he would dominate on the recruiting trail.
Can you imagine the reaction when Jon Gruden shows up at a high school game? When Jon Gruden does an in home visit? Is there any quarterback in the country who wouldn't love to play for Gruden after watching those quarterback camp videos? Is there any player who wouldn't be impressed by Gruden's ability to groom them for a job at the next level? You think parents would trust Gruden to get their sons ready for a pro career?
Plus, he's charismatic as hell.
Imagine that charisma plus a Super Bowl ring.
This guy would kill in recruiting.
6. Paying a name coach fills the seats, immediately covering the contract cost.
Don't talk to me about the cost.
Whatever it is, cost has to be no obstacle for the Vols, one of the top ten largest athletic programs in the country.
Do you know what's expensive? Thirty thousand empy seats in Neyland Stadium are expensive. A rapidly declining season ticket base is expensive. I've been arguing this reality for a long time, if you're a big time program that isn't spending money on a big time coach -- as Tennessee has continued to be -- then you're costing yourself the money that you save on coaching costs in lost attendance.
Coaches are entertainers in an HD television era.
They have to sell out their stadiums, convince people to leave the couch and come off their wallets.
Dave Hart knows this, he's seen it all before at Alabama, a place that was struggling through it's fifth coach in eight years when Saban came to town.
Remember the criticism Alabama faced when they paid Nick Saban an enormous sum of money to come to Tuscaloosa?
Saban has paid for himself a hundred times over.
More than that, even. Find me a single person in the country who will argue that Nick Saban isn't worth the money he's paid.
You can't find a single one.
In fact, Saban is the best buy in entertainment today. He makes $44 million less a year than Judge Judy.
It's time for Tennessee to hire their own Saban.
Back up the dump truck and unload as much cash in Jon Gruden's front yard as you possibly can.
Gruden still might say no, but it better not be for financial reasons.
Put simply, the Vols need to make Jon Gruden an offer that he can't refuse.