As sure as mall Santas mark the coming of Christmas, so too do Jon Gruden rumors usher in a new coaching carousel season. This year, the Super Bowl XXXVII winning head coach and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst is linked to Arkansas and Tennessee through unnamed sources. CBS Sports NFL beat reporter Jason LaCanfora reports Gruden is high on each university’s list — and with good reason.
Gruden’s aggressive style turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise long associated with professional futility. Before that, he was just shy of Super Bowl XXXV with the Oakland Raiders. He’s a proven football mind with a track record for success. His NFL connections would likely make him a big winner on the recruiting trail, pitching his knowledge of what it takes to succeed in the pros to five star recruits with Sunday dreams. Gruden has also said he would return to coaching for the right opportunity.
Neither Arkansas nor Tennessee is currently that right opportunity — the perfect opportunity. And considering how coveted Gruden is at both levels, only perfection will win his service.
The calls for Gruden emanating from SEC country have persisted for several weeks. Noted Tennessee fan and prominent blogger Clay Travis began beating the Gruden drum last month as Derek Dooley’s Vols began to struggle. In Arkansas, Razorback fans took to YouTube to show support for a Gruden hire with a Beatles cover.
Gruden’s name surfaces in college and pro coaching vacancy rumors annually because he is such a worthwhile candidate. In 2010, speculation he would land at Miami reached a fever pitch. Perhaps Gruden knew something Al Golden didn’t as it pertained to Miami’s struggles with the NCAA. Maybe Gruden didn’t see The U as the perfect situation. Whatever the reason, he balked at the job and less than 12 months later, re-upped his contract with ESPN to extend through 2016.
His ESPN contract is a sizable roadblock for any college program. Gruden is paid handsomely for a gig of relatively low stress — certainly low stress in comparison to coaching an SEC football program. Tennessee faces financial challenges with its coaching search. Athletic director Dave Hart called it “a tenuous situation,” as UT buys out Dooley and his staff.
Tennessee has other baggage. While the program is steeped in rich history, the last half-decade has been — excuse the pun — rocky. A Hall of Fame coach with a national championship was fired just four years ago in Phil Fulmer, though the end of his tenure began a gradual slide from prominence; Lane Kiffin’s one season left behind NCAA sanctions; and Dooley’s run relegated Tennessee to the bottom of the conference.
There’s work to be done reestablishing UT as a premiere SEC program, and one has to consider if Gruden would leave the comfort of ESPN for the rigors of taken over a downtrodden, former superpower.
Arkansas may not have the same mountain of troubles awaiting its new head coach. The Razorbacks are one season removed from 11 wins and a Cotton Bowl victory, and were favorites to make noise in the SEC West before Bobby Petrino was dismissed in April. Arkansas is also not historically established like Tennessee, instead facing something of a little brother role against divisional rivals Alabama and LSU.
Arkansas has only been in the SEC two decades. The Razorbacks are not outsiders like Missouri, but aren’t part of the league power structure yet, either. Chipping into that foundation built over decades is what the program’s next head coach must do, and he must do so without the same local recruiting bases that sustain many of the conference’s powers.
Consider two other NFL-turned-college coaches: Pete Carroll won
two national championships at USC; Jim Mora is excelling at UCLA. Both came into programs located smack dab among a talent-rich recruiting pool. Neither had to build a program while also building pipeline — and neither was as coveted a candidate as Gruden.
Both the Tennessee and Arkansas jobs will attract top shelf talent, as they should. The opportunities for a coach to establish an impressive legacy are there for the right coach to build. But Gruden’s that rare candidate who has advanced beyond the need to build.