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Vols put full-court press on Gruden

If you thought the Grumors were out-of-control before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

University of Tennessee Athletics Director John Currie and key UT mega-boosters appear to be putting the full-court press on Jon Gruden, in an effort to persuade the Super Bowl-winning former coach to replace Butch Jones in Knoxville.

Former VolQuest and GoVols247 reporter John Brice and The Read Optional reporter Trey Wallace reported independently Thursday that Tennessee officials were in Tampa, Fla. on Wednesday. Wallace reported that UT folks remained on the ground in Tampa on Thursday.

Gruden, who is ESPN’s hot-shot NFL color commentator, maintains his primary residence in Tampa.

While news of Tennessee officials visiting Tampa will accelerate rumors that Gruden is going to be the Vols’ next head coach, Gruden is doing nothing to squelch the Grumors. He appeared on a Seattle talk show Thursday morning — the Seahawks are scheduled to host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, and Gruden will be making the trip to Seattle for the game — and brought up Knoxville and Rocky Top without being provoked.

Although Knoxville radio host Jimmy Hyams tweeted on Thursday afternoon that Tennessee officials are not interviewing Gruden, it appears that, at the very least, Currie and his key power-brokers were in Tampa this week. Such a trip could only serve a couple of purposes: one, to put the full-court press on Gruden in an effort to try to persuade him to sign on as Tennessee’s next coach, or to interview other candidates in Tampa, using the Grumors as a smoke-screen to mask their intent.

The latter could be especially useful if the Tennessee brass is attempting to lure a coach away from his current job. If that were the case, Gruden’s bizarre mention of Knoxville and Rocky Top on Seattle radio might be explained, as he could be complicit in the UTAD’s misdirection campaign.

However, complicating matters are reports from multiple origins — including Wallace — that Gruden has reached out to former Tennessee players in the coaching industry to gauge their interest in joining his staff. Most notably, reports have centered on Appalachian State defensive assistant Dale Jones.

As those reports swirled, JJ McCleskey — who was a defensive back at Tennessee in the early 1990s and later played in the NFL — tweeted early Wednesday, “Thinking about coming out of retirement.” He retweeted several tweets that assumed his remark was related to Gruden. However, McCleskey has never been a coach. After he retired from the NFL in 2000, he founded a business that focuses on athlete training.

Former UT-Chattanooga Athletics Director David Blackburn, who was a candidate for the same job at Tennessee before Currie was hired, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press Wednesday that Gruden would listen to an offer from the Vols. Blackburn and Gruden were once roommates and worked together on Johnny Majors’ staff during Tennessee’s 1985 Sugar Bowl season, and have remained close.

Asked about the Grumors on ESPN’s Mike and Mike radio show Wednesday morning, Gruden said he has no plans of leaving the sports network, where he maintains celebrity status as the color commentator of the Monday Night Football franchise. “But,” he added, “You never say never to nothing.”

National sports media continue to mock the idea of Gruden coaching the Vols. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach tweeted Wednesday evening, “If Jon Gruden takes the Tennessee job, I’ll sing Rocky Top in the town square of Madison, Georgia on Christmas Eve.”

ESPN’s SEC Network radio host Paul Finebaum has also dismissed the idea of Gruden signing on with the Vols, citing a source who is reportedly close to Gruden and said that Gruden would not be leaving Monday Night Football.

In the midst of it all is Gruden, who has had numerous opportunities to shoot down the speculation, and thus far has not. That seems to indicate that the 54-year-old former coach is at least intrigued in the job opening. There was mutual interest between Gruden and some associated with Tennessee in 2012, when Derek Dooley was fired after three seasons as the Vols’ head coach. During that Grumors cycle, the rumors were unabated for several days but Gruden eventually released a statement through his agent to dismiss the notion. Three years later, Gruden said that “the timing wasn’t right” when the Tennessee job was open in 2012.

Grumors date all the way back to 2008, when Tennessee fired Phillip Fulmer. At that time, Gruden — who has maintained a relationship with several Tennesseans from his days as a graduate assistant on Majors’ staff, and who married an East Tennessee native — was still the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, though his career there was winding down. Shortly after he was fired a few months later, ESPN swooped him up to join the Monday Night Football franchise. Gruden has gone on to become ESPN’s most popular on-air talent, but he has maintained an interest in eventually returning to coaching, admitting on multiple occasions that he is constantly preparing for a potential return to the sidelines.

If Tennessee’s efforts to secure Gruden should fail, it appears likely that Currie is trolling for other big fish. Among the names that are being mentioned are Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and TCU’s Gary Patterson. If Florida hires Chip Kelly, as is looking increasingly likely, UCF’s Scott Frost is also a possibility.

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