KNOXVILLE – After a season that saw Tennessee lose seven games, many of them in heart-breaking fashion, the loss of potential coaching candidates Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State) and Charlie Strong (Louisville) on Wednesday might’ve hurt Tennessee fans worse than any of the other defeats.
Gundy has reportedly bowed out of consideration after talking to the Vols, while Strong made his decision to stay at Louisville official Thursday morning at a press conference.
"My enthusiasm and heart is with the University of Louisville," Strong said of his decision to stick with the Cardinals rather than bolt for Knoxville. "How do you walk away from someone who believes in you?"
Strong’s decision still leaves the Vols without a coach and now in search of what’s next.
Perhaps it’s time for Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart to stop going down his list and think more about expanding it. That’s not to say that there aren’t some quality names left that Tennessee has already considered.
North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, Miami’s Al Golden and Cincinnati’s Butch Jones are three potential candidates who have been regularly linked to the search. They all have some upside and hiring any of them – especially Fedora – would be a decent way to end this process.
Below them will be more predictable candidates – Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, former North Carolina coach Butch Davis, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville and other coaches or coordinators with SEC or Tennessee ties. Some have even suggested getting the old band of Fulmer and defensive coordinator John Chavis back together.
But consider Arkansas’s coaching search. After failing in an attempt to lure LSU head coach Les Miles, Arkansas AD Jeff Long expanded his search and eventually found Bret Bielema of Wisconsin, a proven winner from the Big Ten who was rarely linked to the Arkansas opening before the hire was made.
The Tennessee job has its challenges. Hart laid some of them out in his press conference on Nov. 18. Financial issues, a rift between academics and athletics at the University and dealing with the ultra-competitive SEC are some of the things the new coach will have to deal with. Now there’s the stigma of being Tennessee’s third or fourth choice.
It just takes one person to say yes, though. Just like Arkansas, initial failure doesn’t have to mean that Tennessee doesn’t end up with a quality head coach. And though recruiting will take a hit with every passing day that there’s no coach, that’s better than settling for one who will ultimately bring the program down. All of the other SEC schools have made their hire – what’s the rush for Hart now?
It’s time to brush off the contacts list and get to work.
Start with Greg Roman, offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and co-architect with Jim Harbaugh of Stanford’s impressive recent run along with the success of the 49ers. Roman is viewed as one of the best game planners in football.
Speaking of Stanford, why not give its current head coach, David Shaw, a call to see if he would be interested in a raise?
Sticking to the West, next go to Kyle Whittingham at Utah, a coach with a 71-32 career record and a 7-1 mark in bowl games. Despite a rough 5-7 campaign this year, he’s still a proven winner. Hiring former Utah coach Urban Meyer worked out fine for Florida.
If Hart hasn’t spoken to Gary Patterson at TCU, now is the time to do it. He has a history of saying no, but would he do it to a $4.5 million offer? Hart should find out. Do the same for Chris Petersen at Boise State.
Next call Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. He’s led Northwestern to five straight bowls. Not bad for a program that only went to seven total from 1948 to 2005.
Then try to raid the SEC. Hugh Freeze did an unbelievable job at Ole Miss in his first season. He tripled the Rebels' win total from 2011. Dan Mullen might be ready for the next step after upgrading Mississippi State in the past few years.
Finally, see if there’s a current or former NFL coach who might want to make the jump. Call Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks), text Sean Payton (suspended New Orleans Saints coach), check in with Jack Del Rio (former Jacksonville head coach, current defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos).
Sell what Tennessee does have – great facilities, a winning tradition and a passionate fanbase – not what it doesn’t.
Hart might hear “no” a lot in that process. But it only takes one “yes.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.