Tennessee was poised to have the same head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator for three years in a row for the first time since 2003-2005. But Mike Bajakian's departure to become the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has shaken stability in Knoxville. It's a relative shake, one we hope is just an aftershock after multiple earthquakes in an athletic department that employed Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, John Chavis, Bruce Pearl, and Pat Summitt back in 2007. Those good ol' days and the ones even better a little further back are the ones Butch Jones is trying to help Tennessee return to.
They'll do it now without Bajakian, who leaves at what seems to be an odd time for all involved and clearly now not directly tied to the opening at Central Michigan. Tennessee returns ten starters from a unit that shredded Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl and will be projected to do big things in 2015.
With Butch and Bajakian, together throughout the former's time as a head coach, playing fast has been key. The Vols were faster than ever against the Hawkeyes, a sure sign of progress in the same system for two years. So as Bajakian departs and Butch enters year three looking for payoff, what can the Vols do to ensure their identity remains intact and, hopefully, continues to evolve?
In many ways, this makes hiring from within the safe play. Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni is frequently speculated by those who do the speculating to become a head coach some day (and perhaps Central Michigan will swoop in and end this whole conversation), and as Tennessee's recruiting coordinator he has helped reel in a pair of truly transformational classes. He's never called plays, and we've seen that movie with Sal Sunseri. But that's an awfully quick and awfully unfair comparison to make.
Butch Jones has been very loyal to his guys, bringing almost his entire staff with him from Cincinnati and keeping them all together even when guys like Don Mahoney were heavily criticized during the regular season. So if the move is Azzanni, I wouldn't be surprised.
Another factor in the Azzanni corner: Mike Bajakian and John Jancek were tied for 30th among SEC assistants last year, both making $480,000. Tennessee's practice while digging out of a significant financial hole has not been to pony up huge dollars for their football or basketball coaches, nor has it been to pay their current assistants top-tier money. So it's hard to me to see that Tennessee, at this point, is going to shell out the big bucks for a hot shot name offensive coordinator. Because if they did, I think they'd also want to give the existing assistants additional raises - seems like something Butch would want to do, judging by his loyalty and his current pay structure giving the offensive and defensive coordinators the same amounts - and I'm not sure additional raises for the assistants are in the cards.
This is in part why the others you're hearing - Mike DeBord from Michigan, Calvin Magee currently at Arizona, T.J. Weist from UConn - aren't necessarily household names. Various levels of homecoming fantasy - Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Jim Bob Cooter - may dominate early fan conversation, but if the Vols do go outside the existing family, it seems more likely than not it will be to a name you weren't really familiar with before hot boards started showing up today.
Azzanni makes $305,000 currently, which will go up some anyway once raises are distributed. The Vols could elect to give him a raise within their own camp and then go find an excellent quarterbacks coach. The system stays the same, the terminology stays the same, and Tennessee builds from its existing foundation.
Promoting from within has long been a Tennessee tradition. When Phillip Fulmer took over, from within, for Johnny Majors, he promoted David Cutcliffe - an eleven year assistant - to offensive coordinator. The results were pretty good: Cutcliffe's first offense, led by Heisman runner-up Heath Shuler in 1993, remains the highest scoring unit in school history. Two years later, Fulmer promoted John Chavis from within to defensive coordinator. And 20 years and several rings later, Chief just went to Texas A&M for $1.7 million.
When Cutcliffe went to Ole Miss following the 1998 regular season, Fulmer again promoted from within by going to Randy Sanders, who had mixed results in seven years. More recently, Jim Chaney retained his position and acquired play calling duties in the transition from Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley. It's been done here. A lot.
Is it the right move? Well, that's why they're paying Jones the big bucks and you read this blog for free.
One thought on Bajakian: I don't know the man, and I don't know why an SEC offensive coordinator with so many years invested in Butch and so much coming back would jump to become an NFL quarterbacks coach. There are plenty of assumptions out there. But if we're going to indulge assumptions, I mentioned this one in the comments yesterday: Bajakian has three daughters, aged one, two, and three. The grind of Tennessee Football, especially when it's as celebrated as it is under Butch Jones, cannot be easy. The NFL has no recruiting and fewer hours. If it was the better choice for him and his family, I don't need any other explanation.
Tennessee's response on the official site today was a short statement from Butch and a long list of Bajakian's accomplishments. The program itself is good with public praise of the guy who left them for a position coach on Sundays. I'm good with doing the same. Bajakian helped set the table for what has a chance to be next. It's on Butch to put the offense in new hands while continuing the overall progress this football team is ready for.