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Gruden, Mullen emerge as favorites for Tennessee coaching vacancy

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There are still those who scoff at the notion of Jon Gruden being named the next head football coach at the University of Tennessee.

“There should be a constitutional amendment against writing ‘Jon Gruden’ and ‘Tennessee’ in the same sentence,” CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd tweeted Monday.

But, more and more, those haughty guffaws are turning to nervous chuckles.

No one likes to be wrong, after all. Especially journalists. And if Gruden, by chance, were to wind up coaching here, there would be a few of them with egg on their faces. Like Dodd. And Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel, who wrote Sunday that “anyone who mentions Jon Gruden in any capacity should be charged with journalistic negligence.”

It is now clear that the Gruden-to-Tennessee rumors have legs, with mutual interest from both sides. Multiple reports now indicate that Gruden is reaching out to former Tennessee players who are in the coaching business in an effort to gauge their interest in joining his staff in Knoxville, and Saturday Down South’s Michael Bratton reported this morning that Gruden was in Knoxville over the weekend — his third visit to the capital city of Big Orange Country in the past month.

None of this means that Gruden is going to be Tennessee’s next coach. There was mutual interest in 2012, too — even to the level of Gruden placing calls to build a hypothetical staff. For whatever reason, it ultimately did not pan out. Gruden said in 2015 that the timing wasn’t right, whatever that means.

Gruden has never been a head coach at the college level and hasn’t coached in any capacity since 2009, when he was fired by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he has a rock star status in the football world at all levels, having taken his popularity to new heights as color commentator for ESPN’s popular Monday Night Football franchise. College programs and NFL franchises with coaching vacancies have unsuccessfully courted Gruden every year since he got out of coaching. Even before he was fired by the Bucs, the Super Bowl-winning coach was linked to the Tennessee job in 2008, after Phillip Fulmer was fired.

The 54-year-old Gruden — who was once a graduate assistant for Johnny Majors at Tennessee, and married an East Tennessee girl — would be a high-risk hire, and a costly one. He makes more than $6 million annually at ESPN. But he also has an extremely high ceiling, and it isn’t hard to see why so many UT fans — and fans of just about every other football team — are enamored with him. The hire, if John Currie can pull it off, would rock the college football world and turn the SEC on its head.

Of course, there are still plenty who dismiss the notion of Gruden coming to Tennessee as little more than a pipe dream. Indeed, it seems to be a long shot at best, even at this stage of the game.

And if it should fall through, then what?

The next step appears to be Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. When asked about the Tennessee job on Monday, Mullen told reporters that he “loves” the job he has. But he certainly didn’t make any effort to distance himself from the opening in Knoxville, or the idea that he might leave Starkville for either Knoxville or Gainesville.

Mullen would not excite the Tennessee fan base — particularly not the faction that is sold on Gruden becoming the Vols’ next head coach. But, as the saying goes, UT could do worse. Much worse.

The former Florida offensive coordinator is 68-45 at Mississippi State, a place where it’s notoriously difficult to win. He has the Bulldogs off to a 7-3 start this season and played No. 2 Alabama to the wire on Saturday. The Crimson Tide scored with 25 seconds remaining to avoid overtime.

Mullen’s Mississippi State team finished 5-7 last season before a win in the St. Petersburg Bowl, tied for his worst record at Mississippi State since 2009, his first season on the job in Starkville. However, his job performance was still enough to earn him a four-year contract extension in February.

At $4.5 million per year, Mullen is one of the SEC’s highest-paid coaches.

Unless Mullen is targeted by Florida, it seems unlikely at this juncture that the 45-year-old head coach would rebuff overtures from Tennessee. However, should the Vols look in another direction, it becomes less clear where they will turn.

One name that continues to receive a lot of play is Central Florida’s Scott Frost. The 42-year-old Frost is the coaching candidate du jour this season. In his second season at UCF, he has the Knights off to a 9-0 start and ranked No. 14 in the nation. UCF was 0-12 just two years ago.

But there have been no reports linking Frost to the Tennessee job. He is a Nebraska alumnus, and it is thought that the Cornhuskers may have a coaching vacancy this year. He’s also a strong candidate for the Florida job, with the recruiting ties he has built in the Sunshine State. It remains unclear, however, whether Florida will get past Chip Kelly on its coaching big board.

One thing that seems certain: Tennessee will not target Kelly, nor will it target some of the other names on a lot of hot boards, such as Louisville’s Bobby Petrino or FAU’s Lane Kiffin. Petrino would likely crawl to Knoxville, if given the opportunity, and Kiffin would do the same. But Petrino has plenty of personal baggage, while Kiffin burned too many bridges with his midnight exit that jump-started Tennessee’s forgotten decade that has become the 2010s.

There will be plenty of names, too, thrown against the wall that are long shots. One of the most discussed among those seems to be New York Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers. The 48-year-old is a native of Humboldt, Tenn., and played for the Vols under Johnny Majors. But he doesn’t fit any of the criteria highlighted by Currie. The fact that the New York Daily News broke the story lends credence to speculation that Rodgers’ agent floated the rumor in an effort to secure a pay raise for his client.

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