Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart announced on Sunday afternoon that Volunteers head coach Derek Dooley has been relieved of his duties effective immediately. Volunteers offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as interim head coach for the season-ending game against Kentucky.
Dooley, who posted a 15-21 record with one bowl appearance in three seasons in Knoxville, failed to revive a once-proud Tennessee program, winning only four SEC games in three years while losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky over the last two years.
I honestly feel bad for Dooley because he inherited an absolute mess once Lane Kiffin bolted after the 2009 season, but Tennessee truly had too much talent this year to find itself with only four victories through eleven games. Throw in the fact that the Volunteers are in danger of going winless in Southeastern Conference play for the first time in school history, and it’s clear that a change had to be made at head coach.
The Tennessee athletic department now has the great opportunity of pulling off the Mike Shula Effect like Alabama did after the 2006 season, firing a head coach with a famous last name but a severe scarcity in the win column for a proven coach that rebuilt the program. Although it would definitely be a stretch to think that Tennessee will see such a huge turnaround as Alabama did when Nick Saban hired, it definitely wouldn’t be out of the question for one of the best SEC teams of the 1990s and early 2000s to return to that post under a better prepared regime.
Now the question is who will be the next head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Here are five candidates that I strongly suggest that Dave Hart should consider for the position:
Jon Gruden, former Buccaneers HC – If you have paid any attention to the rumors that have been swirling around this job, you know that some strongly suggest that the Super Bowl XXXVII winning head coach is in play for this position. After all, Gruden has spent some time at the University of Tennessee (spent the 1986 and 1987 seasons as a graduate assistant under Johnny Majors), has family ties to the program (wife was a UT cheerleader), and reportedly owns land in East Tennessee (If you want to see the most intriguing rumor about all this, check it out). I have no doubt in my mind that Gruden would pull in recruits like crazy by flashing that Super Bowl ring; the question is whether or not he is willing to leave his current gig on Monday Night Football. If Gruden does indeed leave for Rocky Top, the rest of the SEC better enjoy this time of UT being down while it lasts.
David Cutcliffe, Duke HC – While hiring Cutcliffe won’t exactly send shockwaves through the SEC, it would be one that would more than likely lead to the Volunteers making major progress on the football field. A Tennessee assistant for a total of nineteen seasons, Cutcliffe has done a great job in his two stints as a head coach, going 44-29 at Ole Miss before being fired after his first losing season and currently holds a 21-38 record in five seasons at Duke, which had won 22 games in the thirteen seasons prior to his arrival. Leaving Duke for Tennessee will be easier said than done for Cutcliffe (he was rumored to have turned the job down back in 2010 when Dooley was hired), but a decision to do so should be music to the ears of Volunteer Nation.
Kirby Smart, Alabama DC – Easily the hottest assistant coach in all of FBS, it is a matter of when not if Smart becomes a head coach. Just 36 years old, Smart has spent the last five years commanding the Crimson Tide defense, which has given up thirty points or more in just three games during that span; compare that to Tennessee, which gave up thirty points or more eight times this season. Although the last Alabama defensive coach the Volunteers hired was a complete disaster (current defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri), it would be a safe assumption that Smart has the smarts to fix Tennessee’s defensive woes.
Charlie Strong, Louisville HC – Charlie Strong was the Kirby Smart of the last decade before Louisville gave the former Florida defensive coordinator the chance to run his own program, and he has not disappointed, as he currently holds a 23-13 record over three years and has the Cardinals sitting at 9-1 with a real shot at a BCS bowl. The fact that Strong lasted so long before landing a head coaching job still confuses me to this day, but now it really seems like just a matter of time before he either leads Louisville to the promised land or leaves for a program that has the potential of putting together a real dynasty. Could Tennessee serve as the latter in this situation?
John Chavis, LSU DC – A former guard at Tennessee in the ‘70s, Chavis spent fourteen seasons as Tennessee defensive coordinator before taking over as Tigers defensive coordinator in 2009. Although some UT fans may have mixed feelings about Chavis returning to Tennessee, he has made it abundantly clear that he is one of the top defensive minds in all of college football, something that the Volunteers desperately need. I don’t see Chavis leaving the Bayou Bengals unless his alma mater gives him his first head coaching gig.