The Tennessee football program does not seem to be as alluring to coaches as it once was.
In the space of less than a week, athletic director Dave Hart has been turned down by three potential candidates for the position of head football coach at the University of Tennessee. Jon Gruden, Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong have all said no to the Volunteers.
Even with the lure of big money and outstanding facilities, Hart cannot find anyone to take what some believe to be a marquee college job. The Tennessee program offers a legacy of winning and is steeped in football tradition.
So, what's the problem?
SEC rivals Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky have filled their vacancies as Gus Malzahn, Bret Bielema and Mark Stoops, respectively, accepted those jobs. But for some reason, Tennessee is not having as much luck. Hart has heard the word "no"more often than a geeky high school boy who keeps asking cheerleaders to the prom.
Could it be that top college coaches do not think theTennessee job is as attractive as the Vol Nation thinks it is?
Granted, the attempt to land Gruden was a bit of a stretch. The former Super Bowl winning coach has been an NFL guy for most of his career, and is currently well paid to serve as ESPN's Monday Night Football analyst. That he was not really interested in the Vols should not have come as a huge surprise, even with his family ties to the Knoxville area.
Has Tennessee football declined in stature over the course of the last decade?
Gundy, was being asked to leave his alma mater, where he is already being paid a nice salary. So luring him to Rocky Top may also have been something of a stretch.
But the reported refusal by Strong is perhaps the most revealing. While University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich might have been willing to match other suitors dollar for dollar, there are other factors that might have enticed the Cardinals coach to make the move to Knoxville if he felt like the Tennessee job was one where he could win.
First, the SEC is the place to be for any coach who wants to participate in meaningful games. The national championship hardware that adorns the trophy cases of these schools easily overshadows those won by all other conferences combined in recent years.
Strong has SEC ties, having served as an assistant coach at both Florida and South Carolina. So it would have been no surprise if he wanted to return to the league if the right job presented itself.
Also, the facilities at Tennessee are second to none. Neyland Stadium seats over 100,000 fans, the indoor and outdoor practice areas are top notch and the workout facility is new and state of the art.
When it is factored in that the Vols have money to spend, one has to wonder why any coach turn all of this down. There must be more to the story here.
When long time coach Phillip Fulmer was asked to leave at the end of the 2008 season after having experienced two losing season in four years, some warning signs may have gone unnoticed.
With several of Volunteers' biggest, and geographically closest, rivals having upgraded their own coaching staffs in the years leading up to Fulmer's dismissal, recruiting had become more difficult. Tennessee had not been able to land as many top high school prospects from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama as it had when those rival schools were not being headed up by Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban.
When those top flight coaches took over Tennessee's rival programs, recruits suddenly seemed to want to stay close to home rather than make the trek to Big Orange Country. With the home state not being one known for producing great high school talent, the Vols must be able to raid other states for up and coming players to have success. Those borders had been suddenly locked down.
Lane Kiffin took over for Fulmer but only remained in Knoxville for a single season. The former offensive coordinator at Southern California returned to the place where he had experienced great success previously.
But rather than simply leaving to return home, could it be that Kiffin had come to realize his chances of winning consistently at Tennessee were less than great?
No doubt, the University of Tennessee has one of college football's richest traditions. But a limited recruiting base and very tough annual rivals may have other coaches thinking that the Volunteers coaching job is not what some on the outside of the coaching business may think it is. While the money being offered may be great, the opportunity to win consistently may not be.