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Is there fire behind this Jon Gruden smoke?

The name was out there, being whispered among Tennessee fans who didn’t dare mention it out loud. And then Paul Finebaum dropped it. Like a bomb.

“If I hadn’t been to Knoxville last week, I would have laughed at you,” Finebaum said on his daily radio and SEC Network talk show, in response to a caller who claimed that Jon Gruden would be Tennessee’s top choice to replace Butch Jones. “But I talked to someone, let me put it to you that way, someone that I have a lot of trust in and that is connected deeply in that program and he told me the same thing. He said ‘If we lose this (Georgia) game, and something happens to Butch Jones, our first choice will be Jon Gruden.'”

And there it was. A flashback to late 2012. A return of the Grumors.

Within minutes, Vol Twitter was aflame with speculation that Tennessee was set to hire the Super Bowl-winning former coach and Monday Night Football analyst.

Never mind that Tennessee doesn’t even have a coaching vacancy to fill. Butch Jones is still the Vols’ head coach, and will coach the team against South Carolina. (No, Tennessee fans, Jones was not arrested for DUI this week. There is no massive cover-up conspiracy going on and, as Abe Lincoln said, you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet.)

It seems likely — perhaps even inevitable — that Tennessee is going to part ways with Butch Jones. If, or when, that happens, the dam is going to burst on the lake of speculation, and the orange-tinted corners of social media networks are going to be flooded with speculation about guys like Gruden, and Chip Kelly, and Bob Stoops.

It’s easy to dismiss the Gruden talk and say, “No way. Not ever. Why would he give up his big salary and comfy Monday night digs to re-enter the pressure cooker of coaching? Ain’t gonna happen.”

And, to be clear, it should be pointed out that Tennessee fans who allow themselves to fall into the trap of the Gruden talk are 99 percent likely to be jilted like a forgotten groom at the altar, just as they were in 2012, when the rumor du jour was that Tennessee was in talks with Gruden, and Tennessee instead hired Butch Jones from Cincinnati.

But is it really that simple? Not entirely.

Fact is, it’s likely that Jon Gruden is going to coach again. Why would he want to? Who knows. He makes $6.5 million from ESPN to be a color analyst one night a week and his contract runs through 2021. Why on earth would he want to give that up?

That’s a question I can’t answer, but Gruden said as recently as 10 weeks ago that he’s “preparing to come back” to coaching.

“I am, every year, preparing myself to coach,” he said. “Sometimes I show up at (training) camp, and I show up in the offseason, and people let me coach. I jump in drills and they still let me install plays and call plays at some places. I still have a lot of fun.

“Just about every year I talk about coming back to coach. I’m not here every day at 4:30 or 4 in the morning to watch pinball, you know? I’m preparing myself to come back. I am. Every day. I’m preparing to come back.”

It was rumored last December that Gruden had made contact with the Rams, but he later denied those reports, saying he enjoys his Monday Night Football gig and wasn’t interested in coaching.

But that was then. This is now: “I haven’t lost the itch, though. I miss the players. I won’t deny that. I don’t want to start anything, but I say the same thing to everybody. There are very few passions in my life. The man upstairs, family and football.”

Okay, so we can establish that Gruden has opened the door to the possibility that he might return to the sidelines. But, surely, he would stick to the professional game? Right? Right??

It’s true that the NFL is all Gruden has known. He’s never been an assistant at the college level.

Oh, except that time he was a graduate assistant under Johnny Majors at Tennessee in 1986 and 1987. (He went on to become the passing game coordinator at Southeast Missouri State, then the tight ends coach at Pacific before joining the San Francisco 49ers in 1990.)

It was in Knoxville that Gruden met his wife, Cindy, whose family lives in East Tennessee and who was a cheerleader at the University of Tennessee.

Those random facts are the basis of endless — often mindless — speculation that Jon Gruden would accept an offer to coach at Tennessee. In 2012, when Derek Dooley had been fired and the Vols were searching for a new coach, the Gruden rumors — aka Grumors — exploded in Knoxville. Many fans were convinced that Gruden was set to become the program’s next head coach, with rampant reports — some of them credible — that he was in the closing stages of contract negotiations with then-Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart.

It never materialized, and the skeptics who had dismissed the notion of Gruden coming to Knoxville from the very start had themselves a hearty belly-laugh at the expense of the hopeful Tennessee fans who dared to buy in to the wild rumors.

Fast-forward almost three years, as Tennessee was preparing to kick off the 2015 season. Gruden, appearing on Finebaum’s show, said the Vols had hired the right coach in Butch Jones. But he also said something else intriguing.

“Tennessee is a dream job for a lot of people, me included,” he said.

That was interesting, because Gruden was rumored to be a choice to replace Phillip Fulmer in 2008, and to replace Lane Kiffin in 2010. Whether he was actually contacted by the school either time is unclear. But each time he made it clear that he wasn’t interested. In 2008, he was still employed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By 2010, he had been fired by the Bucs but still showed little interest.

So fast-forward to 2017. Gruden once said that if he was going to coach in college, Tennessee would be his choice. Is there any chance that the current Vols administration will make a run at him?

Probably not. That’s the easy bet. But for all those who scoff and dismiss the notion out-of-hand, remember that those 2012 rumors turned out to be not so far-fetched after all.

That’s right. The skeptics who belly-laughed at the believers back in 2012 didn’t necessarily get the last laugh. Gruden might not have become the Vols’ head coach in 2012, but there was some interest on some level, and apparently it was a mutual interest.

That’s what we can gather from Gruden’s 2015 comments, when he said that Tennessee was a dream job. The conversation was launched when Gruden was asked how close he had been to taking the Tennessee job in 2012.

“I don’t know how close,” Gruden said. He went on to add, “The timing wasn’t right.”

Here is the complete quote, for context: “I don’t know how close. I love football. I’ll be the first to tell you, I miss coaching. But I do look at my job here as a lot like coaching. I get a chance to be around it 364 days a year and I feel like I’m improving, but I don’t have a team. Tennessee is a dream job for a lot of people, me included. Timing wasn’t right. I’ll say this about the Volunteers, they got the right guy. I think Butch Jones is going to put the Volunteers back on the map. It might happen this year.”

Of course, the obvious conclusion is that there is a gargantuan gap between a mutual interest between the two parties and an actual deal for Gruden to become the Tennessee head coach. That was true in 2012 and it’s even more true on Oct. 6, 2017, when Tennessee has a head coach in place and does not have a vacancy. At this point, it’s only speculation that Tennessee will ultimately be looking for a coach, no matter how likely that may seem.

Oh, and there’s also this nugget from Gruden. Back in July, when he said he was preparing to return to coaching, he was asked specifically if he would consider coaching at the college level.

“I would probably have you on probation within four or five weeks,” he said, referencing the recruiting rules that are in place by the NCAA.

So there you have it. Jon Gruden isn’t going to be the next coach at the University of Tennessee.

We think.

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