Is Jon Gruden Tennessee’s Best Option?

Jon Gruden Tennessee

Yes.

It’s that simple. Tennessee is in its fourth coaching search in the last ten years. The previous three coaching hires didn’t quite work out. Lane Kiffin showed promise. But his questionable methods running the program and his midnight departure were a national embarrassment for the Vols. Derek Dooley had the last name and the pedigree. Unfortunately, that’s about all he had. Under Dooley’s watch, Tennessee was as bad as they’ve ever been historically.

And the Butch Jones era ended last week after another disappointed drubbing — at the hands of Missouri this time. Jones rebuilt the program, recruiting talented players and getting Tennessee to three straight New Year’s Day Bowls. But his inability to develop the talent and win an East Division championship gave him little room when things went south.

Why Jon Gruden Is Tennessee’s Best Option

There was a pervasive narrative of disbelief that Jon Gruden would consider taking the Tennessee job among the national media after Jones’ firing. After it became clear that Gruden was most definitely considering the job, the narrative changed to one of dismissal. But that narrative is incredibly short-sighted.

The Safest Option

The most important reason why Jon Gruden is the best option for Tennessee is that he is the safest hire for John Currie, Tennessee’s new Athletic Director. This is Currie’s first big hire at Tennessee, and at a traditional football school, ADs are judged on their football hires. Boosters and fan base alike were split during the Jones era. And everyone knows that each coaching hire has risks. Some turn out unexpectedly well — think Clay Helton at USC or David Shaw at Stanford. Some turn out unexpectedly bad — think Mike Shula at Alabama, Charlie Wiess anywhere, or Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.

As an Athletic Director, your biggest risk is going against the grain. And executives are rarely willing to accept risk in an inherently volatile market. Gruden is Currie’s safest move. Almost everyone in the Tennessee program and support structure is on-board with this hire. If Gruden were to flop, it wouldn’t fall on the feet of Currie. With almost every other coach, there will be dissenters that will blame the AD for any failures or disappointments. With Gruden, however, almost everyone is on board.

At a place like Tennessee, the Athletic Director doesn’t have complete control of the program. But he is the most important power broker and he is the person that makes the hire. That’s the biggest reason why Gruden is Tennessee’s best option.

Professional Connections

Jon Gruden is one of the most well-connected coaches in football.

Coaching Sabbatical

One of the biggest concerns around Gruden is his time away from coaching. It’s been almost ten years since Gruden has coached a team. And there is certainly validity in those concerns. But it’s not like Gruden’s been sitting on the coach stuffing his face with potato chips for a decade. He’s been nurturing his professional connections in the National Football League. In the hyper-competitive environment that is the NFL, he’s played a role of neutrality, all the while talking to coaches on a daily basis as part of his broadcasting and Fired Football Coaches of America (FFCA) duties.

Rather than a negative, his coaching sabbatical might be one of his biggest strengths.

Recruiting

Another knock on Gruden is the perception that he’s not interested in putting in the effort it takes to be successful at recruiting. Maybe that’s true. But he wouldn’t necessarily have to fly and drive around the nation to be an effective recruiter. For one, he’s three hours from Nashville and a few minutes more from Atlanta. In the last two recruiting cycles (2017 & 2018), eight of the 59 players (14%) rated as five-stars by industry composite site 247Sports.com were in the Atlanta, Knoxville, or Nashville/Middle Tennessee areas.

Here’s the other thing: his recruiting pitch will be pretty effective. A possible conversation with a recruit might go like this: “Hey, I’m Coach Gruden. I know every single head coach in the NFL, including my brother and my three best friends. Maybe you’ve heard of some of the players I’ve coached. Brett Favre, Joe Montana, and Steve Young. If you’d like a shot at playing big time college football in front of a rabid-to-crazy fan base, in front of 102,455 people every Saturday, and play in the NFL in a few years, why don’t you think about coming and playing for me at Tennessee. Oh — sorry for the bright light, that’s just the reflection of the lamp off of my Super Bowl ring.”

Yeah, recruiting shouldn’t be a problem.

Building His Staff

By all accounts, he’s reached out to several former Tennessee players to inquire about their interest in joining a possible staff at Tennessee. USC Offensive Coordinator Tee Martin, Detroit Lions Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and New York Jets Defensive Coordinator Kacy Rogers are all former Tennessee players reportedly contacted by Gruden. Jay Graham at Florida State is another former Tennessee player that is a likely addition to any Gruden staff at Tennessee. Gruden is one of the few people with the ability to assemble a staff of this caliber even in an exploratory phase of negotiations.

This last point highlights one more thing. Gruden gets it. “It” being the importance of the Tennessee connection. The single biggest implication of the Lane Kiffin hire in 2008 was that it was the first time that a person with no previous Tennessee connections was hired to coach the Vols since Doug Dickey‘s hire in 1964.

Gruden understands the importance of having Tennessee people at Tennessee. Gruden got his coaching start under Johnny Majors at Tennessee. And his early overtures to former players who are having success in coaching is a very positive sign.

X’s and O’s

There’s no doubt that Gruden knows his X’s and O’s. The man has made “Spider 2 Y Banana” a household phrase. He was 100-89 (54%) in 11 seasons in the NFL. He guided the Oakland Raiders from last place in their division to two consecutive division titles and NFL Playoff appearances. And that was in the late-Al Davis era. After being traded to Tampa Bay, Gruden had three division titles in seven seasons, including winning Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers.

So, let’s recap: He won while working for Al Davis and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The man knows how to coach.

Personal Brand

But here’s one that might be just as important. Gruden is a known commodity with a solid personal brand. One of the issues with Butch Jones was the degraded relationship with local and national media, which in turn created embarrassing national stories out of the smallest of things and the most innocent of cliches.

Gruden is different. As a media member for the last ten years, it’s expected that he’ll have a great relationship with national media, and most likely with local media as well.

His personal brand is one with a smile, not a flush red face. It’s one of Corona and Hooters, not expensive cars and retail therapy. People laugh with Gruden, not at him.

It’ll be a refreshing change from the bombastic Kiffin, the Doo-lander, and Butch Jones.

The Right Choice

There are no guarantees for any new hire. Sure, Jon Gruden could be like Steve Spurrier going to the Redskins or John Robinson going back to USC. It might not work out.

Yes, he’s been off the sideline for ten years. And yes, there are some concerns regarding his willingness to put in long hours and travel.

But he’s clearly Tennessee’s best option at this point. And he’s John Currie’s best option as well. The only question that remains isn’t whether Gruden is right for Tennessee, but whether Tennessee is right for Gruden.

 

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