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A starter list for possible head coaches

November 13, 2017

For the fourth time in a decade, Tennessee is back on the market for new head football coach. Here’s the VolQuest.com coaching board: 1.0

THE BIG NAMES

JON GRUDEN The former Tennessee graduate assistant has been an obsession of Vol fans since Phillip Fulmer was relieved of duties in 2008. Gruden has never publicly slammed the door on coaching again but despite all the rumblings of the last decade, Gruden has never been close to being the coach of the Vols.

Gruden’s wife is a former Vol cheerleader and her family lives in East Tennessee. Gruden is in the area from time to time and has been in East Tennessee this fall, further fueling the rumors and wishes of Vol fans.

PROS: He’s Jon Gruden. An offensive mind and a Super Bowl Champion coach.

CONS: Gruden is under contract at ESPN through 2021. His reported salary is $6.5 million annually — and that doesn’t include product endorsements that take his salary north of $10 million. While Gruden has never slammed the door on coaching, he’s not pursued an NFL job and privately he’s told people — including college coaches this year — that he doesn’t have a desire to coach in the college game.

In January, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Gruden turned down multiple NFL head coaching opportunities because “in part because of the coaching restrictions of the CBA. He said he is a broadcaster, not a coach.”

CHIP KELLY

Wanna see Tennessee fans get fired up at at a slightly sub-Gruden level? Mention Chip Kelly. Many view him as a “home-run” hire, the can’t miss candidate that Tennessee should “open up the proverbial checkbook” for. The kind of coach, who in the minds of some fans, would put Tennessee on equal footing with Alabama and Nick Saban — at least on the sidelines. Others see a prickly control-freak who left behind some NCAA baggage at Oregon.

Kelly made a huge professional jump when he moved from offensive coordinator at New Hampshire into the same position at Oregon in 2007.

PROS: His success on the field at Oregon cannot be disputed. He had a stunning run as a head coach, going 46-7 in four seasons in Eugene. He also went 33-3 in the PAC-12, either sharing, or winning the conference championship outright in each of his four seasons.

His success in simple terms of wins and losses is undeniably impressive.

CONS: The first thing that many athletic directors are going to think of when they think of Kelly isn’t the 46-7 record at Oregon. It’s the two years of NCAA probation Oregon got hit with for violations which occurred during his tenure. Is John Currie one of those A.D.’s inclined to think that way? We shall see but many seem to think so.

Kelly may have flamed out in the NFL, but he also made a ton of money, meaning he probably doesn’t have to jump back into the college game unless he sees a perfect situation for himself. Would Tennessee be such a situation? Some have speculated that Kelly would want more control over the program than Tennessee — or some other schools for that matter — would be willing to give.

Also, does he want to recruit? That was a major reason why Kelly jumped to the NFL several years ago.

DAN MULLEN

Mullen, just 45, is 67-44 in nine years at Mississippi State, rebuilding a downtrodden program with limited resources. In his only head coaching job, he’s led the Bulldogs to the school’s best extended stint since World War II.

Mullen is considered a quarterbacks whisperer, coaching Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald, among others. Mullen’s stock was at an all-time high in 2014 when he had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the country, however, the Bulldogs’ head coach has seen his stock dip a bit recently after a 6-7 season in 2016 and is 7-3 this year after last night’s narrow loss to Alabama.

Mullen is making north of $4.5 million and recently signed a four-year extension though 2021.

PROS: Mullen has done a lot with a little in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have gone to bowl games in seven straight years, recruited fairly well, and despite playing in a tougher division, have more 9-wins seasons than Tennessee during Mullen’s tenure.

The 45-year-old coach has proven apt at evaluating quarterback talent, seeing something in Smith, Prescott and Fitzgerald where others did not. Finally, Mullen clearly familiar with the SEC, coaching for four years at Florida as the offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer before taking the MSU job.

CONS: Mullen was very interested in the Georgia job two years ago, but wasn’t a candidate. However, he’s turned down or rebuffed advances from schools like Penn State, Miami, Oregon and others in recent years to stay in Starkville.

Why? Mullen appears to be waiting — or circling — two jobs: Notre Dame, where he was a former assistant, and Florida. Mullen wasn’t a candidate for the Gators in 2014 because he and former UF athletics director Jeremy Foley had a frosty relationship. Now, Mullen’s longtime advocate and former Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin sits in Foley’s seat in Gainesville. It’s also unknown how much it would cost to pry Mullen away, as his buyout remains unreported.

JUSTIN FUENTE

Fuente is in his second year at Virginia Tech after a three-year stint as the head coach at Memphis. Prior to becoming the head coach at Memphis, Fuente was Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator at TCU from 2009-2011.

In his first year at Memphis, Fuente went 3-8. But the turnaround was quick as the Tigers under his direction went 19-6. In his first year at Virginia Tech, Fuente went 10-4 and won the ACC’s Coastal division.

Fuente is a native of Oklahoma and graduated from Murray State. Fuente is currently under contract till 2023 and reportedly makes $3.25 million. In the final year of his current deal, Fuente is scheduled to make $4 million. He has a $200,000 retention bonus that is due to him in April of 2018.

PROS: Fuente has been successful quickly in two stops as a head coach. Fuente quickly turned Memphis around and he found great success in year one as the head coach at Virginia Tech. He’s followed up his first year in Blacksburg with a fast start as the Hokies are 7-3 with their lone loss to Clemson. Fuente is familiar with the South and with the state of Tennessee, which would certainly help the Vols in recruiting.

CONS: He’s in a good position at Virginia Tech with little scrutiny and while the ACC is a good conference, it’s not the SEC in intensity overall. Fuente has done a fabulous job not only with the program but bridging the gap with Frank Beamer and long time assistant Bud Foster after Beamer was forced out and Foster publicly campaigned for the job.

Fuente is very popular in Blacksburg and is only in his second year. How interested would he be in potentially moving after just two seasons with the Hokies. The other con is that his buyout to leave on his own before Dec. 15 is $6 million. After Dec. 15 it drops to $5 million.

THE RISING STARS

SCOTT FROST

Frost was the starting quarterback for Nebraska during the Cornhuskers’ national championship, undefeated team in 1997 that walloped Tennessee 42-17. Frost is even more famous, now. Since inheriting a Central Florida team that won 0-12 in 2015, Frost has won 14 of 21 games with the Knights and has them undefeated and ranked so far this season.

Frost signed a contract extension with UCF in May, bumping his salary up to $2 million a year. Frost’s buyout is reportedly around $3 million.

PROS: He’s young and clearly an offensive guru. Even after Chip Kelly left Oregon, Frost stayed on Mark Helfrich’s staff and was the playcaller behind Marcus Mariota’s Heisman season. He’s had the same success with lesser players now at UCF, too. Interestingly, Frost actually got his coaching start on the defensive side of the football, and was actually a defensive coordinator (2008 Northern Illinois) before developing into an offensive mastermind.

CONS: He’s a Group 5 coach and it’s hard to see Tennessee going down that path again — post Butch Jones. Frost’s recruiting acumen is largely unknown and mainly there’s the fear of a homecoming.

Frost is Nebraska’s prodigal son. He grew up less than a hour away from Lincoln and was the star of the most recent glory days. If Frost spurns his alma mater, he could be waiting out the Florida job.

MIKE NORVELL

The former Central Arkansas wideout has rocketed up the coaching ranks the last decade, working his way up as GA at his alma mater to the OC at Tulsa, Pitt and Arizona State before taking over for Justin Fuente as Memphis. The 36-year-old coach is 8-1 with the Tigers in 2017, calling plays for former Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson.

He makes around $2 million annually with a contract that runs through 2021. Norvell’s buyout is reportedly north of $4 million, per the USA Today database.

PROS: He’s an offensive guru with a talent for coaching quarterbacks. Since his first season as a coordinator (2011), Norvell’s offenses have averaged 38.2 points per game the last seven years. He’s young, and his time in Memphis has allowed him to develop recruiting relationships in a key part of the Volunteer State.

CONS: He has no real SEC ties and his recruiting acumen is unknown. Ole Miss and Arizona State could also be interested.

CHAD MORRIS

An offensive ‘wunderkind,’ Morris built his reputation as Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator and play-caller at Clemson — as well as the coach who helped recruit and develop Deshaun Watson.

After one year at Tulsa, he jumped to Clemson where in 2011 he became the highest paid assistant coach in the country at $1.3 million annually.

PROS: Morris is an offensive innovator who has built his reputation on being a creative play-caller. He can recruit and develop quarterbacks. The fact that he would likely play a crowd pleasing brand of football is not insignificant. And while he’s obviously a ‘Texas guy’ with deep roots in that state, the four successful seasons he spent at Clemson give him some very real ties to the south and the very areas where Tennessee recruits.

Morris would also likely be a fairly economical hire. He is the highest paid non-Power 5 coach at over $2 million per year with a $3 million buyout.

CONS: Could Morris handle the scrutiny that this program generates? It’s a fair question, but it’s also one that could be asked about the vast majority of names on this list. He has no real SEC ties, and outside of his four seasons at Clemson and one at Tulsa, he has spent his entire life in Texas. Is he possibly holding out for the Texas A&M job?

D.J. DURKIN

Durkin is in his second season at Maryland’s head coach, amassing a 10-13 record. The 39-year-old Ohio native played linebacker at Bowling Green and got his coaching start at his alma mater.

PROS: It all starts with recruiting. Durkin was key in assembling top classes at Florida, especially mining Virginia and North Carolina.

In 2012 alone, he poached two five-stars — Jonathan Bullard and D.J. Humphries — from the Tar Heel State. Meanwhile, Durkin has coached alongside some of the top minds in college football and wouldn’t cost a ton to come to Knoxville.

CONS: Thus far, Durkin has had just marginal success as a head coach. He’s still young and has plenty of upside, but is he ready to handle a program like Tennessee? Furthermore, would he even want to leave Maryland so soon?

FRANK WILSON

Wilson is no secret to recruiting or the SEC — including Tennessee. The current UT-San Antonio head coach coached for a year on Rocky Top with Lane Kiffin. Wilson made his mark in the SEC in recruiting.

When Kiffin bolted to Southern Cal, Wilson joined Les Miles’ staff at LSU as the assistand head coach and recruiting coordinator. In 2016, Wilson became the head coach at UT-San Antonio going 6-7 in his first year.

This year Wilson has Roadrunners at 5-4.

PROS: Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Wilson has long been known as an elite recruiter and has numerous ties throughout the Southeast in the recruiting world. And he’s seen Tennessee up close. Wilson was a surprise hire at UTSA, but by all accounts has done a good job in roster and game management. Wilson makes just over $1 million.

CONS: Wilson hasn’t done it at this level. He’s seen the scrutiny that comes with the SEC, but he’s never had to manage it. He knows the significance of recruiting in the SEC and how big of a battle that is but he’s clearly never led a program of Tennessee’s magnitude and his only two seasons into his head coaching career.

MIKE BOBO

The Georgia native is a familiar name to Tennessee fans and the SEC. Bobo played his college football at Georgia from 1993-1997. When his playing days were done, Bobo jumped to the coaching ranks as a graduate assistant in 1999 and then spent a year at Jacksonville State in 2000 before Mark Richt called him back to Athens in 2001.

In Bobo’s first two seasons with the Rams, he led them to 7-6 records and two bowl games. In 2017, the Rams are 6-5.

PROS: Bobo is an offensive coach who cut his teeth with Mark Richt, who’s widely regarded as a good offensive mind. He has a great understanding of the SEC and the SEC East. And he has plenty of ties to the southeast having spent most of his life in the state of Georgia. Bobo is certainly affordable. He makes $1.55 million a year plus incentives. Bobo’s buyout to leave Colorado State is $2.5 million. The buyout drops to $1 million.

CONS: Bobo has never run a Power 5 program and he’s had marginal success going 14-12 in his first two seasons. Bobo is thought to be an up and coming in the coaching ranks, but is he ready to be a Power 5 head coach?

JEFF BROHM

The Louisville, Ky., native is in his first season at Purdue after leading the Western Kentucky program as its head coach from 2014-2016.

The Brohm name is a popular one in Louisville as Jeff played at Louisville. His brother Jeff played receiver at Louisville and brother Brian was a quarterback at Louisville who Tennessee tried to recruit.

PROS: Brohm is well thought of as an offensive mind. He’s played and coached under offensive minds like Mike Shanahan, Norv Turner, and Bobby Petrino. Brohm has head coaching experience at two different schools and has found success at both against SEC schools albeit he’s very early in his Purdue career. Brohm has shown an ability to recruit and has used transfers successfully for a quick roster flip.

CONS: Brohm is in year one of his deal at Purdue and would he even be interested in moving so quickly. There is obviously a small sample size for him at a Power 5 school. Perhaps the biggest issue would be Brohm’s buyout. Currently, Brohm makes $3.3 million a year. His buyout before December 5th is $5 million. It drops to $4 million on December 6th, but Brohm also would owe Purdue $900,000 if he left before December 31st as a part of the loan Purdue gave him to get out of his Western Kentucky contract.

NEIL BROWN

Brown guaranteed that his name would make an appearance on coaching hot boards this offseason when his Troy team went into Baton Rouge and beat LSU earlier this month. Some luster may have come off his name when that same Troy squad lost at home to South Alabama a couple weeks ago, but he still qualifies as a young coach who looks upwardly mobile.

He’s 22-13 in this third season at Troy and is coming off a 10-3 campaign in 2016.

He had previously served as wide receiver coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Troy from 2006-09 before returning in 2015 as head coach.

PROS: Brown, who reportedly makes $850,000, would be one of the most affordable coaches on this list. At 37, he’s one of the youngest head coaches in the nation, and while that may not be a positive in the minds of some, the fact that he’s been able to successfully run his own program at such a tender age is impressive. It’s easy to downplay his success as having come in the Sun Belt, but that’s to sell a young coach short for some noteworthy accomplishments.

CONS: Neither as a player nor as a coach has Brown ever been a part of a program that draws the kind of scrutiny and attention that Tennessee does. Having just gone through a similar situation with Jones, hiring someone that’s been exposed to high stakes football, even if just as an assistant, could be a factor for the Vols this team around. Also, it goes without saying many will view 38 as simply being too young for a Tennessee head football coach.