Don't let the title confuse you. I believe that the Tennessee Volunteers' head coaching position is among the best in the country, and Vol fans should rightfully have their sights set high. But I've seen and heard some wild rumors that need to be addressed.
What have we come to—Daniel, the voice of reason? Things really are different on Rocky Top.
Back when Tennessee was teetering on the edge of having a good season, I controversially cemented my place in the sorry-but-don't-think-Derek-Dooley-is-the-guy camp. It turned out to be right.
Maybe my prognostication skills are best suited to a time of crisis, something the Volunteers are certainly experiencing now. Or maybe this list is full of coaches that would never want the job.
You be the judge.
Let's start with a few names whose omission from this list was completely intentional:
Bobby Petrino: Besides a clear pattern showing that he comes in, wins at great cost to the program, then bails for a "better" job in about three years, Dave Hart specifically stated that high moral integrity was a key requirement for the next coach. Buh bye, Bobby.
Kirby Smart: You have to like a young, energetic, up-and-comer who has several years under Nick Saban! But wait, are we talking about Smart or Derek Dooley, who had the exact same things said about him? Who's to know how good a coach Smart is with Dooley and Sal Sunseri showing what they're like away from Saban? Furthermore, Hart also said head coaching experience was a must.
Jimbo Fisher: I know his name is getting pitched around, but this seems like a complete farce to me. Fisher is at a Florida State program whose tradition is equivalent to Tennessee's and has a record of 29-9 in his three years there. He's very close to building a national title contender. Any "interest" is a ploy to get his department to build promised facilities.
David Cutcliffe: "I can tell you right now that I'm going to be coaching at Duke next year. I'm very happy here, and this is where I'm going to be. I can put that to rest because that's a fact." -David Cutcliffe
Phillip Fulmer: Just stop it.
Gene Chizik, Jim Tressel, Raheem Morris and Chris Petersen are also names I've heard that I absolutely cannot see being hired.
If Chris Petersen doesn't want to leave Boise State, I'm not sure why Gary Patterson would want to leave TCU. Of course, the two are different coaches with different situations, but they've seemed to mirror each other since 2006.
Patterson has no doubt been offered numerous jobs during his 12-year run with the Horned Frogs, but he's stayed in Fort Worth. Now that TCU is in the Big 12, he has a legitimate shot to compete for national titles.
And yet, his name has popped up more than once for Tennessee as well as Arkansas. I don't think it's a likely possibility, but my rule is to make them tell you no.
If Patterson is interested in leaving, he is probably the best candidate of all.
Please know that Doug Marrone isn't a guy I want but a guy I've heard more than once as a possibility. For those wondering where the baseline is, Marrone is it.
Marrone is finishing his fourth year at Syracuse, a program that hasn't seen major success since Donovan McNabb. His record is 23-25.
He is an offensive line coach by trade with stops at Georgia Tech, Georgia and indeed, Tennessee. This might be the reason he's mentioned from time to time.
Is the need to have a "Tennessee guy" so imperative that the Volunteers should stoop this low after the failure of the last three years? I seriously hope not.
Jon Gruden has suddenly become a highly polarizing figure in Volunteer Country.
There are those that desperately want him and those that absolutely don't. There are those that think he could win immediately and those that think the learning curve is too steep.
How about a more moderate approach?
Gruden obviously knows the game, having spent 11 years as a head coach in the NFL. He sports an eternally impressive Super Bowl ring but also has a mediocre 100-85 career record.
While he has become one of the game's most popular commentators, we tend to forget he was considered a very hard-shelled coach that wasn't popular at all by the time he was done in Tampa Bay. He was like Tom Coughlin with fewer wins.
His name alone would garner a few recruits, but that's only a short-term fix. Eventually, even a Super Bowl winner has to show he can execute at the college level to get recruits to commit. Bill Callahan, an NFC Championship winner himself, didn't fare too well at Nebraska.
My verdict is that Gruden could definitely be a good coach at Tennessee, but it would take a paradoxical shift in his coaching career. Does he want to do that? We can only guess.
Al Golden has been heralded by Braden Gall as a serious candidate for any coaching job, including Tennessee.
Golden has head coaching stops at Temple and Miami, where has seen mild success, especially considering the circumstances. Honestly, he'd be a more comfortable candidate had he won more games with the Hurricanes.
As it stands, he's 12-11 in nearly two years in Miami. Still, Golden is seen as one of a handful of next coaches with the potential to be great, mostly due to seven years of head coaching experience at just 43 years of age.
Personally, I'm lukewarm on Golden. I don't think he provides the punch the Vols need right now, but it's hard not to like a coach that wears a tie for every game.
How long does Dan Mullen really want to be in Starkville, Mississippi? I don't want to downgrade any SEC city, but from a football perspective, what's the ceiling for Mississippi State?
As long as Nick Saban is at Alabama, the ceiling is second place in the SEC West. In the long-term, it's probably the occasional appearance in the SEC Championship Game—maybe once every seven or eight years.
Mullen can and will do better than that eventually. His tenure with the Bulldogs is helping to boost his resume and polish his head coaching skills. Now would be a great time for he and Tennessee to move forward together.
After taking over an anemic State program in 2009, Mullen will be sending the Bulldogs off to their third-straight bowl game this year. Mississippi State had seven losing seasons out of eight before he arrived. Now they've had only one losing season out of four.
This might be the safest strong pick.
I've been beating the Charlie Strong drum for a while now. Here's why:
Strong has coached 21 of his 30 years in the SEC. The vast majority of that time was spent as a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida.
If knowing how to recruit and compete in the conference is important, Strong meets that requirement. If fixing Tennessee's awful defense is important, Strong meets that requirement as well.
He took over for Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville, who went 15-21 in his three mediocre years with the Cardinals. Don't put too much blame on Kragthorpe, though. He was hired very late in the offseason (January of 2007) after Bobby Petrino bailed in the middle of the night.
That sounds a little familiar.
Derek Dooley, whose 15-21 record at Tennessee is identical to Kragthorpe's, took over for Lane Kiffin very late in the offseason (January of 2010) after Kiffin bolted for USC in the dead of night.
It seems to me that Strong is quite comfortable operating under these circumstances.
Finally, Louisville, a basketball school that hadn't experienced serious winning in five years, has been turned into a 9-1 contender that has an excellent chance to make a BCS Bowl, never something to scoff at.
For those belittling Strong's accomplishments at Louisville because it's in the weak Big East, I simply respond by asking what conference Louisville is in. Is he not using Big East players to rule the Big East? Is it not logical that he could bring in SEC-caliber players at an SEC school like Tennessee?
That sentiment would have left Urban Meyer (Utah) out of Florida and Brian Kelly (Cincinnati) out of Notre Dame.