Who's next in Knoxville? A guide to the realistic candidates for Vols
Butch Jones’ removal as Tennessee’s head coach leaves a gaping hole at an SEC job. The open position will draw plenty of interest. It will also draw plenty of speculation of both the realistic and unrealistic variety. Today, Rivals.com takes a quick look at some of the names that will be tossed around in connection with Tennessee during the weeks ahead. We’ve ranked eight possible candidates from most realistic to least realistic.
Each coach listed below has been assigned a “realism score.” A “10” on the realism meter signifies a can’t miss relationship for both parties. A “1” represents resurrecting Vince Lombardi and installing him as head coach.
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JEFF BROHM, PURDUE
Why it’s realistic: Brohm is becoming a proven coaching commodity before our eyes. In his first year at Purdue, he has the Boilermakers looking light years more competitive than they have in recent times, and his resume beyond this season speaks for itself. Brohm went 30-10 in three seasons as Western Kentucky’s head coach and has spent the bulk of his career coaching in or around Tennessee’s most vital recruiting grounds.
Why it’s not: Tennessee will likely make a few calls before they get to Brohm, who may need more time to prove he’s a winner at the Power Five level. Brohm would likely be interested in the position. The catch here centers on whether or not that interest is reciprocated.
Realism rank: 7
SCOTT FROST, CENTRAL FLORIDA
Why it’s realistic: Frost is going to be the hottest young coaching name on the market, and it seems almost certain that Tennessee will buzz his phone. After helping make Oregon a national power years ago, he has completely resurrected a UCF program that was 0-12 the year before his arrival. Frost’s offense has been proven effective at multiple levels and he’s a proven recruiter. Frost would bring, youth, name recognition and a proven scheme to Knoxville.
Why it’s not: Frost played quarterback at Nebraska and will likely be at the top of his alma mater’s list of coaches should the it part ways with Mike Riley. Tennessee has the money to go toe-to-toe with the Huskers, but what it can’t sell is nostalgia. Even if Nebraska is not in the market this offseason, a long list of other schools will likely call to check on Frost, notably Florida. This seems like a lock to becoming a bidding war whether the Vols are involved or not.
Realism rank: 6
JUSTIN FUENTE, VIRGINIA TECH
Why it’s realistic: The allure of the SEC is real. Tennessee could certainly dish out the money to make Fuente consider jumping ship. Fuente is a proven winner but still retains the aura of availability. Fuente, who left Memphis to take his current gig at Virginia Tech, is familiar with the Tennessee landscape and what it takes to recruit in the area.
Why it’s not: Fuente has a good thing going at Virginia Tech and may not want to give that up to take on a resurrection project. Expectations at Tennessee are higher than they are at Tech, and winning over yet another fan base is hard work. Logic says that Fuente will get a call from the Vols, but it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which he decides to pass on the opportunity.
Realism rank: 6
Why it’s realistic: Some would suggest that Mullen has hit a ceiling at Mississippi State and that both he and the program could benefit from a refreshing parting of ways. Mullen could see Tennessee as an upgrade in recruiting base and an opportunity to reinvent himself in new surroundings. Not to mention the money would likely be there. Tennessee will like the fact that Mullen has proven himself capable of competing in the SEC and enjoy the name recognition he has inside the conference footprint.
Why it’s not: With his in-state rival Ole Miss dealing with a heap of uncertainty, now seems like an odd time for Mullen to bolt. The door is open for the Bulldogs to take the next step forward in the year ahead, and Mullen has to be aware of that opportunity. On the Tennessee side of things, the fact that Mullen has only once finished over .500 in SEC play in eight seasons could be a turnoff.
Realism rank: 6
BRENT VENABLES, CLEMSON DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Why it’s realistic: Clemson’s current defensive coordinator, Venables has strong ties to the south and could be a nice recruiting fit for Tennessee. He’s as proven as one can be without ever being a head coach, as his defenses have been among the nation’s best at every stop. He’s credited with a large portion of Clemson’s ascension to national-power status and has deep ties to multiple talent pools throughout the region. Venables has been linked with FBS jobs in the past, but seems to be biding his time when it comes to taking a shot at the big time. Tennessee has the resources and the prestige to appeal to the 46-year-old coach.
Why it’s not: It’s not hard to imagine either party passing here. It would be understandable if Tennessee wanted a proven head coach or if Venables wanted to wait for a job that wasn’t as much of a rebuild. Proven as he is in the coordinator world, Venables comes with his share of question marks in the head coach’s chair. Despite recent struggles, the Vols are capable of landing an established head coach and may elect to go in such a direction.
Realism rank: 5.5
TEE MARTIN, USC OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Why it’s realistic: Everyone loves an alum, and Martin, who played for the Vols from 1996 until 1999 and won a national title, is that. Martin has been in the coaching game since 2006 and currently serves as USC’s offensive coordinator. The level of familiarity is certainly a draw. As is Martin’s reputation as an ace recruiter. He’s a high-risk high-reward type coaching prospect that could pay off in a massive way.
Why it’s not: Martin has never been a head coach and is only in his second season as a coordinator. The youth that would likely help him on the recruiting trail may work against him during this coaching search. Martin would almost certainly be thrilled to take the job, but Tennessee is unlikely to be in a hurry to offer him that chance. The reason this isn’t so realistic is because Martin may not get an interview.
Realism rank: 5
Why it’s realistic: Kelly has expressed a desire to dive back into coaching and the show-cause penalty that once followed him is long expired. Kelly was a wildly successful college coach at Oregon with a proven system. After hiring Jones away from Cincinnati and giving him a shot at his first Power Five conference gig, the Vols may seek out a proven commodity this time around. Elements of the Tennessee job will be appealing to Kelly, as the fan base, conference affiliation and facilitates are all nice perks.
Why it’s not: Tennessee athletics director John Currie is an ethics-forward administrator that has traditionally stepped softly when it comes to coaches with rule-breaking pasts. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just that Currie isn’t the win-at-all-costs type and might be worried about how Kelly’s past clash with the NCAA will be viewed. Also, there’s no telling just how interested Kelly is in the Vols’ open position, as he is the type that will have opportunities flying at him in the coming year. There also may be no Tennessee interest. This seems like a stretch for both sides.
Realism rank: 4
Why it’s realistic: The only reason Gruden, a former Tennessee graduate assistant, is on this list at all is because he has a son at Tennessee and has recently been spotted and photographed on campus. It has been reported this year, like most years, that Gruden wants back into coaching but it’s a long leap from there to “Jon Gruden wants to be the head coach of Tennessee.” Should Gruden decide he would like to be a college coach, there are certainly things about Tennessee that would appeal to him.
Why it’s not: Pick a reason. Gruden is a big enough name that he could land an NFL job and skip the grind of recruiting if he decides to dive back into coaching. It’s hard to imagine a coach that could have his pick of the litter when it comes to situations, would choose an SEC rebuild project. Gruden has not coached a football game since 2008 and has not coached on the college level since 1989. Never say never, but this probably isn’t happening.
Realism rank: 2