The list of candidates to become Tennessee's next head coach starts with one man. Here's why we hope it ends with him.
A couple of caveats to begin:
- In major college football guarantees do not exist. None of the following hundreds of words are meant to suggest Jon Gruden (or anyone) would have no chance of failure as the head coach at Tennessee or anywhere else. That's why they play 'em.
- Sometimes what the fanbase wants doesn't matter. In a March 2011 poll on our website, two-thirds of the fanbase wanted to keep Bruce Pearl. He was fired four days later.
- Ultimately we will support whoever steps up to that podium. As Joel mentioned on our podcast last night, we may do so with a greater degree of skepticism than ever before given what we've been through and who we failed to land if it's anyone but Gruden, but Tennessee fans will ultimately rally together and support Tennessee's coach.
Here's why we want and Tennessee needs that coach to be Jon Gruden.
Winning When It Matters
None of these words are to suggest that Gruden is the only coach that can win here. He's not.
I think many coaches can do better at Tennessee than what we've seen from 2008-present. I think many coaches can win eight or nine games a year at this university.
Nick Saban and Urban Meyer aren't in the field right now, and Jim Tressel has a show cause. There are no coaches on our list who have won National Championships before.
In our poll on Monday, we asked if not Jon Gruden, who would be your first choice for Tennessee's next coach?
We populated the list with all the names currently being named by media sources we trust in the process. The leading vote getters - Charlie Strong, Gary Patterson, and Jimbo Fisher - have won on the college level. Strong was a defensive coordinator on a championship staff, and has done a great job building a program on the tier just beneath us in football at Louisville. Patterson has done the same at TCU. Fisher is currently 10-1 at Florida State. Those guys are proven winners in other conferences, and I think any of them could win at Tennessee.
It's true, Gruden has never been a college head coach. But his credentials in the NFL are plenty good, starting and ending with his Super Bowl ring.
When Buzz Peterson was fired in 2005, there was a conversation that lasted a few days about the possibility of Bob Knight taking the Tennessee job. And among other things, the conversation included the value of relevance: maybe you win with Knight, maybe you don't, maybe he throws chairs, but you will be talked about. Whatever was real or imagined about Knight and UT, the Vols ended up going with Bruce Pearl instead. And we won.
But let's not confuse a Gruden hire as a desperate play for relevance above all else. Tennessee Football isn't seeking relevance through this hire, they're seeking victory. The best way to be relevant is to win, and the Vols appear to be committed to doing whatever it takes to win. Derek Dooley won the press conference, stabilized the program, and recruited well. But his judge, jury, and executioner were Fall Saturdays. As will always be the case.
Jon Gruden is not the only man who can win on Fall Saturdays in Knoxville. I do believe - and I believe Tennessee believes - Gruden gives us the best chance to win on Fall Saturdays. That, above all else, is why he's at the top of the list.
But that's not the only reason.
Winning Right Now
The biggest difference between Gruden and the field is the impact he would make on Tennessee Football today. Not just in September. Not just in February. Today.
This is one of the biggest reasons we as fans want him so badly: we've spent five years feeling generally terrible, our only good moments swiftly tarnished by a deadly combination of BBQs, too many men on the field, and coaches leaving in the middle of the night. But seeing Jon Gruden come to the podium wearing our orange, and then knowing what it meant for the health of our program going forward? That's the best day we've seen around here in a long, long time.
When Kentucky hired John Calipari, they printed shirts that said "We're Back!"
before he coached a single game. And the Cats, you'll remember, had missed the NCAA Tournament the year before. But in one hire, that didn't matter anymore. Kentucky Basketball was back because the fans, starving for the glory they had experienced years earlier, got the guy they wanted. He didn't need to coach a game yet for them to believe in it.
Of course, Cal actually worked. So did Saban. There are still no guarantees, but those two did work.
I think Gruden would work too on Fall Saturdays. But I KNOW he would work right now.
It's not just the psyche of the fanbase, though hey, we'd appreciate it. It would be wonderful to feel not just good, but truly confident about Tennessee Football for the first time in at least five years. So much has gone wrong, for the Vols to shoot for the moon and get it would be an overwhelmingly joyous experience. It would feel really, really good in a way that no other hire would.
But more than warm fuzzies in the fanbase, Gruden would make an instant impact in the revenue stream.
To paraphrase a line from GhostDance I find myself using more often this week, a visor is the least practical item of clothing a grown man can own. What is the point of a visor? And don't forget, this is a place where the two most famous visors belong to Steve Spurrier and Lane Kiffin.
And if we hire Jon Gruden, I will buy a power T visor tomorrow.
That trip to Eugene that we may never make again? The one where we're supposed to get our brains blown out? We hire Gruden, I start pricing airlines.
Make no mistake, it takes money to make money. It also takes winning to make money, and again, other guys could win here and eventually produce that revenue stream so the athletic department can give back to the university even more abundantly in the future.
But Gruden would change the revenue immediately. Gruden makes an impact on merchandise, season ticket sales, donations, everything. Immediately.
After Gruden, There Is No Mandate
More than 1,300 people have voted in that "If Not Gruden, Then Who?" poll. Charlie Strong was the leading vote getter (which reflects, at least on some level, the fact that the majority of the writing staff here at RTT believes Strong is the next best choice). But Strong barely has a quarter of the vote. Patterson and Fisher are on that next tier, but there is absolutely no unity about who the next best thing is if we can't get Gruden.
So while any of those guys may win, until we see it the majority of us may have a hard time believing it. That, in turn, has an impact on ticket sales and the revenue stream. And remember: Tennessee has a monster schedule next season and may lose every single contributor to the passing game. Whoever the new guy is, there should be zero expectation that he turns it all the way around in Year 1.
The reality is, 6-6 next year would be our best season since 2010. You win the bowl game, it's the best season since 2009. 8-5 would be the best season since 2007.
All of those things would represent progress, but a year like that won't instantly turn things around in ticket sales and revenue. If it's not Gruden, we're more wait and see than ever and none of us can agree on who it should be. And what if we can't land Strong, Patterson, or Fisher? Al Golden is currently pulling in 3% of the vote. The further down the list you go, the more it makes us fold our arms and say, "I need you to show me first."
It's not "Gruden or bust", because what if we bust? Just as there are no guarantees of success, so too is the program not guaranteed to fail if we don't land Gruden.
But for every reason, there is clear separation between Jon Gruden and everyone else. It's not just the thing that would make fans happy right now. It's the thing that would make the biggest immediate impact. And it's the thing that gives us the best chance to win when it counts.
Other coaches could win here. Other coaches could make a difference in the future. But only Gruden will make a difference today. And we believe Gruden gives you the best chance to do what is most important at Tennessee: win.
As such, it's going to be expensive. But we're very excited to see the University of Tennessee put itself in position to do what it needs to do to move forward.
Go get him.