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Grumors take hold: Tennessee fans eye their pipe dream

For the record, many of those connected with the University of Tennessee football program scoff at the notion that Jon Gruden will be coaching the Vols in 2018.

The idea is met with reactions from former players and low-level boosters that range from eye-rolls to guffaws.

Tennessee, which is expected to part ways with fifth-year head coach Butch Jones in the coming weeks, likely has an interest in Gruden, many of them say. It’s just that they don’t think the ESPN analyst will reciprocate that interest.

And why would he? After all, he earns somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million per year as ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst, has a relatively easy job, doesn’t have to face the endless grind of recruiting or deal with pushy boosters, and can’t wind up on the hot seat if he loses a few games he probably shouldn’t have.

That’s the conventional wisdom. But don’t tell that to Tennessee fans.

If polled, most UT fans would react similarly to the former players and low-level boosters. They may be slightly less plugged in than those aforementioned folks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t subscribe to the same logic.

But there is a not-insignificant portion of this fan base that is convinced — or, at least, hoping beyond hope — that Jon Gruden will be roaming the Tennessee sideline next season. They hang out on Vols social media mainstays, like Volnation.com and Reddit, VolQuest and Twitter, where they cling to every Gruden rumor — Grumor, for short — and pick apart every minute detail of everything Gruden . . . right down to the colors of the ties he wears on Monday Night Football.

Gruden — the hot-shot former coach who led Tampa Bay to a world title in Super Bowl XXXVII — has been connected with every Tennessee coaching search since 2008 . . . and there have been a lot of them. He dismissed the rumors (ahem, “grumors”) pretty quickly after Phillip Fulmer was fired amid the 2008 season. At that time, he was still coaching the Buccaneers. In January 2010, after Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal, Gruden — who by that point was employed by ESPN — was again quick to dismiss the rumors. He was a little slower to issue a statement in 2012, after Derek Dooley’s termination. That — and the exponential rise of social media, which had grown by leaps and bounds since Fulmer was coaching the Vols just four years earlier — allowed the grumors to take root and flourish, until Gruden’s agent eventually dismissed them by calling the possibility of Gruden coaching at Tennessee “a fantasy.”

Of course, the grumors were not totally without substance in 2012. There was mutual interest between Tennessee and Gruden. It didn’t work out — Gruden would later say that “the timing wasn’t right” — but there was at least a few flickering flames behind all the smoke.

Fueling the grumors are Gruden’s Tennessee connections. He catapulted his coaching career by spending a season on Johnny Majors’ staff at UT as a graduate assistant in the 1980s. It was there that he met his wife, Cindy, a UT cheerleader whose family hailed from (and still lives in) East Tennessee.

And it isn’t as if Gruden doesn’t do his part to fuel the speculation. In 2015, Gruden called Tennessee “a dream job for many people, including me.”

So it was a given that as Jones’ seat heated up, the grumors would reignite.

They have. Over the past several weeks, Tennessee fans’ lives have hinged on every grumor — some positive, some negative. It has been a roller-coaster ride that has toyed with emotions and consumed mass bandwidth at Reddit and on Twitter. On VolNation.com, the blue-collar messageboard for UT fans, dedicated threads are devoted to Gruden talk. The latest — “Gruden Thread XXII” — had almost 3,700 posts and more than a quarter-million page views in just over 24 hours.

On Twitter, meanwhile, someone had the foresight to establish an anonymous account called “Vol Nugs.” The account doesn’t offer any verifiable information. Instead, it passes along “nuggets” — mostly baseless rumors — that have been cherry-picked from social media or submitted anonymously through the account-holder’s website, VolNugs.com. The lack of verification on the tweets hasn’t stopped the account from racking up more than 3,000 “follows” in less than a week.

There, all sorts of random “nugs” show up related to the Vols’ supposed pursuit of Gruden. Some of them are positive, some of them are negative, but here lately there are far more positive than negative.

“Gruden is an absolute lock,” someone wrote Wednesday evening. “My cousin works at one of the largest sports books in the world and his boss told him to take the UT coaching search off the board and max bet him at every other sports book, wouldn’t say why…”

Someone else texted this nugget: Their cousin, a teacher at Christian Academy of Knoxville, told them that their pastor talked to a parishioner and learned that “the Gruden thing is actually in process.”

In the social media world, almost everyone has a source. And if they don’t, their mom’s cousin’s hairdresser knows someone who has a source. And the grumors never die.

For what it’s worth, and with all joking aside, the smoke seems to be thickening. Those who have long claimed to be in the know to varying degrees claim that there is again mutual interest between Tennessee and Gruden. “Mutual interest” can mean many things. From Tennessee’s perspective, it likely means a loose coalition of boosters who give enough cash to the university to have Athletics Director John Currie’s cell phone number prefer Gruden as the Vols’ next coach. Any contact taking place between the university’s people and Gruden’s people would have to be conducted through those back channels, since the AD himself cannot initiate formal conversations with a coaching candidate so long as the Vols have a coach under contract. And the Vols very much have a coach — Jones — under contract, however numbered his days may be.

Does that mean there is fire behind the smoke this time around? Maybe yes, maybe no. But some of the reports that have begun circulating like wildfire include insinuations that Gruden and the Vols are close to an agreement. There are even numbers being floated about, suggesting that Gruden would make in the neighborhood of $7 million per year at Tennessee, with hefty bonuses for leading the Vols to the SEC East title or making the College Football Playoffs. And, because no coaching search is complete until flight numbers have been tracked and real estate transactions have been rumored, there have been reports that Gruden is looking to purchase the former home of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam in Knoxville.

None of that stops many of those loosely connected with the university from scoffing at the notion that Gruden would consider coaching at Tennessee, but it certainly gives hope to the many UT fans who dream of their school making a splash hire with their next coach. The rumors fly at a dizzying pace, but they’re just getting started. Because when Tennessee actually has a coaching vacancy to talk about, the silly season will truly begin. And that will happen, as they say in grumorland, “soon.”

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