Charlie Strong, Mike Gundy, Larry Fedora and Tennessee: The Waiting Game

Jamie Rhodes-US PRESSWIRE

As the Vols zero in on their reported finalists to replace Derek Dooley, the quality names still standing prove this job is still strong.

Here's where we stand as of Tuesday afternoon:

In the third week of our coaching search, it does not appear we'll need a fourth: Louisville's Charlie Strong and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy have already interviewed for the job according to multiple sources. Evan Woodbery from The Knoxville News-Sentinel gives his take on Strong and Gundy here. North Carolina's Larry Fedora, who just completed his first season in Chapel Hill, has been in the conversation throughout the process and may earn an interview with Dave Hart and Tennessee today in New York.

It's fitting that the future of Tennessee football will be decided in the same week and perhaps from the same location as the National Football Foundation awards banquet, where Phillip Fulmer will be celebrated for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

The Vols aren't where they were at Fulmer's apex; that is certainly the goal, and while we continue to try to avoid the phrase "getting back" because it will always look different under a different coach in a different SEC, Tennessee needs to win and Fulmer knew all about that. The story of Tennessee Football is filled with more wins than the vast majority of other programs in the country. Though it hasn't been in the water around Knoxville for the last five years, winning is now and always in our blood. And the new man in charge will look to warm the hearts of Vol Nation and carry Tennessee forward with confidence and victory.

And there does appear to be reason for confidence in Knoxville right now, perhaps even surprisingly so. In the last five years the Vols are 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7. That's what we call trending in the wrong direction. Every year we get further removed from greatness, the deeper the hole would seem to be.

But when you look at who the Vols have been in serious talks with and compare that to where we were when Dooley was hired, things have changed significantly. In January 2010, the Vols were reportedly turned down by the head coaches at Duke, Air Force, and Utah. We made our choice from among the coaches at Houston, Temple, and of course, Louisiana Tech.

Flash forward three years, and now our finalists appear to be the head coach at BCS-bound Louisville, the head coach of the team that finished #3 in last year's AP poll at Oklahoma State, and the guy that was nine points away from being 11-1 at probation burdened North Carolina.

You'll also find a different athletic director, a bridge being built between academics and athletics, and a roster no longer burdened by the three year recruiting failure of 2007-09.

Tennessee has always been a good job. But despite our horrendous showing on the field these last five years, this still appears to be the best job on a crowded table that includes the team that just won the National Championship two years ago and another that played in a BCS bowl that same season. Our story has taken its twists and turns, from Fulmer's tragedy to Kiffin's rage to Dooley's blunders. But now at the end of all that, Tennessee has a chance to trend upward, sharply.

If we're truly down to these three names, Tennessee is going to make a good hire.

These things change moment to moment - as soon as I hit publish on this I'm convinced either Arkansas will trot out Gundy or T. Boone will trot out a raise - but with all three still technically in the mix, here's a look at how they measure up - for even more in-depth analysis on these three and Butch Davis, check out this post by Trey.

Charlie Strong, Louisville

  • At Louisville (2010-present): 7-6, 7-6, 10-2 (Big East Champions)
  • vs Ranked Teams: 1-1
  • Recruiting Rankings (from Rivals): 48th, 29th, 42nd
  • Other Experience: Florida Defensive Coordinator 2002-2009, South Carolina Defensive Coordinator 1999-2001

For fun, here are Tennessee's point totals against Strong's defenses at Carolina and Florida: 30, 17, 17, 13, 24, 30, 7, 20, 20, 6, 13. I hated going against this guy.

Strong has been the popular choice of this blog among realistic college candidates from day one, and I believe that's fairly representative of the UT fanbase as a whole. He won both of our candidate polls with more than 1,000 votes, and won with ease both times. In our most recent poll of the top six names on the board last Friday, Strong has almost half the vote.

It's easier to start with the downside on Strong: inexperience as a head coach on college football's biggest stage, which can lead to questions about his ceiling. However, it should be noted that between Bobby Petrino and Charlie Strong at Louisville was Steve Kragthorpe, who took the Cardinals from a 12-1 season in Petrino's last year to 6-6, 5-7, and 4-8. Strong inherited a downward spiral, righted the ship immediately, and won the Big East in year three with what is still a relatively young team.

But the good news and the potential upside with Strong is unbelievably high. His defenses have always been solid; the Cards were 25th in total defense and 37th in scoring defense this season. The biggest question for each of these three guys is who they would hire as coordinators, especially defensive coordinators for Gundy and Fedora. For Strong, the questions fall more on the offensive side of the ball. It's a conversation for a later day, but I'd be very much in favor of Strong retaining Tennessee's current offensive staff, which includes Jay Graham and Sam Pittman who the players want, and Jim Chaney, who called plays for what became the second best offense in school history.

Strong would have the early advantage over the other candidates in recruiting as well. I also think he is a good fit personality wise: he knows the SEC, he knows what it takes to win in the SEC having won a pair of National Championships with Urban Meyer. And he fits the mold for relentless optimism, being a players' coach, all of the things you look for in that category.

His lack of experience as a head coach may hurt him, but you can also argue that Strong was ready for the big time long before he got the opportunity at Louisville. He knows the league, would be the best recruiter, and I think gives us the best chance to move the entire program forward. I think Charlie Strong is the best fit for Tennessee.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

  • At Oklahoma State (2005-present): 4-7, 7-6, 7-6, 9-4, 9-4, 11-2, 12-1 (Big 12 Champs), 7-5
  • vs Ranked Teams: 13-18
  • Recruiting Rankings (from Rivals): 42nd, 22nd, 30th, 26th, 36th, 31st, 28th, 32nd
  • Other Experience: Oklahoma State offensive coordinator 2001-04
Now 45 but still no less of a man, Mike Gundy steadily built the Cowboy program after Les Miles departed for LSU, culminating in a Big XII title and a Fiesta Bowl win over Andrew Luck and Stanford last season which put OSU at #3 in the final polls. Gundy has a longer track record as a head coach than either of the other two names in this post to be sure, and has done so against stiffer competition in the Big 12. Gundy is 13-18 against ranked teams but just 3-13 against Texas & Oklahoma. Those are two of the best programs in all of college football with better talent to be sure, but I'm sure that number frustrates Cowboy fans to some degree.

Gundy has been an Oklahoma State lifer and many have been skeptical that he would leave in the first place. If he did come here, you're getting a proven program builder and a proven offensive mind. The biggest staff question for Gundy would be his choice of defensive coordinator.

Someone more familiar with recruiting in general and Oklahoma State specifically can answer this better than I can, but it's curious to see little to no improvement in OSU's recruiting despite its great success under Gundy from 2008-11. You have to recruit regionally and nationally to win at Tennessee, and Gundy has no real ties to the SEC. He's earned the right for fans to feel better about him than others in the wins and losses department, but the challenge is greater in the SEC than the Big 12 or anywhere else, and recruiting is probably more important here. This is in many ways an anti-Dooley hire: proven winner and builder of programs, but can he recruit well enough to win in Knoxville?

Larry Fedora, North Carolina
  • At North Carolina (2012): 8-4
  • At Southern Miss (2008-11): 7-6, 7-6, 8-5, 12-2 (CUSA Champions)
  • vs Ranked Teams: 2-5 (2-4 at Southern Miss, 0-1 at UNC)
  • Recruiting Rankings: Southern Miss 37th, 53rd, 53rd, 85th; UNC 44th
  • Other Experience: Offensive Coordinator Oklahoma State 2005-07, Offensive Coordinator Florida 2002-04
Filling out our circle of life here is Fedora, who worked opposite Charlie Strong as Ron Zook's offensive coordinator at Florida, then worked under Mike Gundy for three years before taking the Southern Miss job. Perhaps the most important thing to note about him: Southern Miss went 0-12 this season as soon as he left.

North Carolina was on probation this season and was ineligible for postseason play. That's a shame, because they would've won their division in the ACC. UNC did not play Florida State or Clemson, it should be noted, but that's not Fedora's fault. The Tar Heels did beat Virginia Tech, Miami, and NC State. They also lost to Duke, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech (as well as a head-to-head loss to Charlie Strong at Louisville). The 68 points they gave up to the triple option are troubling, but note that their other losses were 39-34 to Louisville, 28-27 to Wake, and 33-30 against Duke. This team could've been 11-1.

Fedora also currently has the 19th ranked recruiting class for 2013 according to Rivals. He's less experienced as a head coach on a BCS conference level, but has more overall experience than Strong as a head man. He's less of a household name than either candidate, but does appear to have a ton of upside if he'd be willing to leave North Carolina after just one season. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Fedora has or will interview with the Vols.

I prefer Strong, but think any of these guys would be a good hire. This isn't 1998, but it's also not that far from 2007 and a reasonable expectation of success for Tennessee Football. Given everything we've gone through, if the Vols could get one of these three to say yes, I think we can be in a good place moving forward, and it shouldn't necessarily take the Vols any longer to rebuild than it has other coaches coming into this league at its top tier programs.

So we continue to wait, and hopefully not for much longer. As Fulmer takes the stage in New York to celebrate our past, the Vols will look to one of these three men to become the present and confidently carry Tennessee Football forward to the future.
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