With Tennessee's athletic department finally operating in the black after having to emerge from a deep financial hole created by poor leadership and blundering coaching hires, some may think the Volunteers can't yet afford to hire a marquee defensive coordinator.
Quite frankly, at this stage of coach Butch Jones' tenure, the Vols can't afford not to.
Tennessee is ready to win big. The Vols just finished a 9-4 season with six straight victories to close a very successful 2015 campaign. They were 17 points away from being undefeated and led in the second half of every single loss.
Yet on Wednesday, Jones parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek after a season where UT finished 36th nationally in total defense.
Despite the respectable ranking, the Vols struggled on defense at key moments, particularly in fourth-down situations during a grueling 28-27 loss at Florida that culminated with a 63-yard Antonio Callaway reception on 4th-and-14 that ultimately gave the Gators the win.
Also, the fourth quarter and overtime in the loss to Oklahoma and the final drive against Alabama stood out as opportunities for UT to make a call or a play that could have turned the season's momentum sooner.
Though there were moments of futility, Jancek's tenure at Tennessee was solid. Players developed, the numbers were never bad and the Vols progressed and improved. That's why you can't make this move if you're Jones unless you know you can make a home run hire.
VolQuest's Brent Hubbs and John Brice wrote that those close to Jones say this was a "move to take Tennessee to a championship level." Now, Tennessee has to pony up whatever it takes to do that.
If UT is going to be an elite program again, it has to act like one. More importantly, it has to pay like one.
Once LSU lost defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to Auburn, the Tigers opened the checkbook for Wisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda, quickly securing him with $1.3 million to come to the Bayou, according to NOLA.com's James Smith.
Sure, that's a lot of money, but big bucks can be parlayed into big wins which generate even bigger bucks.
As Alabama has shown over Nick Saban's tenure, you have to spend money to make money. Think anybody in Tuscaloosa is grumbling about that huge paycheck Saban makes, especially with all those national championship rings and dollar bills being pumped out of the Crimson Tide factory like NFL defensive linemen?
Of course not.
Alabama football is a moneymaking machine, and when it comes to coaching hires, nobody pays like UA. Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran's $600,000 paycheck is more than any Tennessee on-field assistant coach currently makes.
The Vols are getting there financially.
Jones received a lucrative raise this year, and athletic director Dave Hart also gave him another $500,000 for his assistant coaches' pool. The financial doldrums are a thing of the past as UT ranked third in Forbes.com's list of most valuable college football programs.
It's time to take that money and make some more. Jones has to get the right guy, but, most importantly, he needs to get his guy.
Most of the buzz surrounding this search is centering on Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Not only is he one of the most respected coaches in the game, he has a history recruiting Middle Tennessee for Penn State head coach James Franklin when both were at Vanderbilt.
Considering Nashville and the corridor to Murfreesboro have been fertile recruiting soils recently and only figure to keep producing more talent, it's essential that the Vols improve the relationships there. After plucking several top-notch prospects out of the area the past two years, UT hasn't fared as well in this cycle.
Plus, Shoop is a pretty darn good on-the-field coordinator, too.
|Bob Shoop's Defensive Statistics (National Rank)|
|Year||Total Defense||Scoring Defense||Rush Defense||Pass Defense|
Other names being thrown around are North Carolina DC and former Auburn national championship head coach Gene Chizik and Houston DC Todd Orlando—a young, energetic assistant who has excelled everywhere he's been.
That trio is a strong start to the search, and if that's truly who Jones is zeroing in on, it needs to go no further than there. If Shoop's the guy, throw enough money at him to make him take it. If it's Chizik you want, do what it takes to get him back to the SEC.
With eight defensive starters returning in 2016 (if Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin don't choose to enter the NFL draft early), next year could be special. The Vols have all their offensive horses returning, and there's no reason to believe a playoff run is out of the question.
But you can't be bumbling around on defense and expect to win games. Jones must find the perfect fit for his scheme and philosophy and make a move that will be seamless as UT enters an era where it should compete for SEC championships.
The Vols have experienced both sides of the coin recently. When offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian left for the NFL following last season, Jones pegged Mike DeBord as his replacement, and UT rushed for the second-most yards in school history and wound up with a strong step forward offensively.
However, back in 2012 when Derek Dooley was facing a make-or-break season with a slew of talent, he lost defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Washington and replaced him with Sal Sunseri, who implemented a 3-4 scheme without the personnel.
The Vols wound up having a historically awful defense that cost Dooley his job and UT a step forward with an offense full of future NFL players.
Nobody is comparing this situation to that one. Tennessee is in far better shape from a personnel standpoint, on firm footing as a program and appears to be on the precipice of sustained success.
But the Sunseri failure is a lesson in hires gone awry, nonetheless. Does Dave Clawson ring a bell? That one wound up backfiring for the Vols, too.
So pardon Tennessee fans if they're a little bit gun shy when it comes to making drastic changes at pivotal program points. There have been forgettable nightmares that sent UT spiraling.
Jones, however, should be commended for taking this type of chance at this juncture of his tenure.
Rather than wring his hands over a decision or tread water in the mires of mediocrity, the third-year coach evaluated his team, decided Jancek wasn't the man to get the defense to a championship level and made the tough decision.
With this move, Jones proves he isn't scared to roll the dice. Just because it was a bold move, though, doesn't make it the right one.
Now comes the hard part: What the Vols do with the hire is what will ultimately determine how good they can be. When it comes to elevating your program, you can't be scared of change—as in personnel change or pocket change.
You don't make a move this drastic without having somebody in mind. Now, Jones just has to go out and get him, no matter what it takes.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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