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As coaching rumors swirl, avoid being trolled

The University of Tennessee is exactly one week removed from firing its fifth-year head football coach, Butch Jones. The Vols’ football coaching rumor mill was running at full steam for weeks before Athletics Director John Currie decided to pull the plug on Jones, and the November 12 decision has sent it into overdrive.

Rumors are flowing at a feverish pace as Currie prepares to enter his second full week of searching for Jones’ replacement. With so much information — and misinformation — flowing, fans who are leaning on every “insider” messageboard post and every tweet are being trolled with increasing frequency. On Saturday, as Tennessee prepared to host LSU at Neyland Stadium, Peyton Manning went to Calhoun’s on the River to eat. Among his dining party was an unidentified man who just happened to look like Jon Gruden — from behind. Someone tweeted out a photo of the back of the Gruden look-alike’s head, and Vol Twitter spontaneously combusted.

Gruden, as it turned out, was nowhere near Calhoun’s. He was more than 2,000 miles away in Seattle, preparing for this week’s Monday Night Football game, which will be hosted by the Seahawks. But that didn’t stop the Grumors — Gruden rumors, as they’re referred to in Big Orange Country — from bogging down social media.

With all of this in mind, here is a short guide to avoid being trolled. It is hardly all-inclusive, and we hardly claim to be experts. But, generally speaking, it doesn’t require an expert to separate fact from fiction when it comes to most of the coaching rumors. Usually, a little analytical thinking will do the trick.

No announcement is coming before the end of the season. Numerous messageboard users, claiming to have inside connections with the Tennessee Athletics Department, have claimed that UT’s new coach will be announced within days — not weeks. The dates vary; some claim Tuesday is the penultimate day, while others say an announcement will come on Friday. Some expected an announcement immediately after last night’s game against LSU.

Unless Tennessee’s hire is not currently coaching — Gruden and Chip Kelly are the only two oft-mentioned prospects who fit that billing — the announcement will not come before the end of the regular season, which is next Saturday (or December 2, if you include conference championship games).

Why? Because sitting coaches are not going to undermine their current teams by allowing a change to be announced while there’s work to be done. For that matter, they aren’t going to enter into serious negotiations while there’s work to be done. There may be discussions — these would take place primarily through their agents — but the heavy lifting will wait until the season is finished. So if you hear someone say that Currie “has got his man,” you can probably dismiss the claim.

And just because the search appears to be “dragging on” is not necessarily a bad reflection on the athletics director. If you fire your coach early, you can expect a longer time lapse before his replacement is named. Tennessee fans wanted Jones fired before the end of the season, and that’s what they got. Now they wait. Similarly, Ole Miss is months into its coaching search, almost certainly isn’t going to retain Matt Luke, and has yet to announce a new head coach.

When is the last time you heard of a college football program naming a new head coach before the season ended? No? Exactly.

No bowl for new coach. On popular Tennessee messageboard VolNation, a user posted a detailed list of claims regarding the Vols’ supposed agreement with Gruden. It included everything from Gruden’s purported salary ($9 million as a base) to such minute details as the new coach’s leased vehicles (three) and season ticket allotment (25).

It was an impressive list, and one that someone had put a lot of thought into. But there was one detail that stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t the only questionable detail on the list (there’s no way Tennessee is going to pay a base salary of $9 million annually to any coach, if we’re being honest), just the one that was the most far-fetched and therefore essentially canceled out the rest of the list. It claimed that Gruden has agreed to coach the Vols in a bowl game.

With Tennessee’s loss to LSU, that’s probably a moot point. The Vols need to beat Vanderbilt, then rely on their APR to earn them a bowl slot. It’s a long shot. But that’s neither here nor there. The main takeaway is that there’s absolutely no way a new coach would coach in a bowl game, for several reasons.

First, let’s assume that the Vols had beaten the Tigers, and that they beat Vanderbilt next week, to achieve bowl eligibility. Are we to assume that Currie is going to lean on Brady Hoke to coach the team to bowl eligibility, then take the reins away from him? That isn’t happening. Second, new coaches bring in new assistants and new philosophies. And there’s simply no way to hire a new staff and implement new offensive and defensive schemes with just three or four weeks — at best — to prepare. Those things take an entire off-season to accomplish.

To assume that Gruden would coach the Vols in a bowl game would be to assume that he would be willing to coach with the team’s current staff, and with the current offensive and defensive strategies. That’s an absurd assumption, and one which is certainly inaccurate.

Reporters aren’t lackeys for the AD. This may be one of our favorites. If you follow the messageboards and Twitter, how many times have you seen this said in recent days: “He’s not reporting it because Currie won’t let him.”

It can apply to almost any situation, but it’s especially common where Grumors are concerned. While some media outlets have reported that Tennessee has been in negotiations with Gruden to replace Jones, others have steadfastly denied those reports. Among the latter is Vol fans’ favorite media whipping boy, radio host Jimmy Hyams. You don’t have to look hard on Facebook or Twitter, or the messageboards, to find someone saying that Hyams is denying the Grumors because he’s helping Currie keep the lid on the matter. The same has been said of former player Jayson Swain, who is these days a radio host, and VolQuest founder Brent Hubbs, among others.

At least with Hubbs, his involvement with the Vol Network ties him to the university. But it’s a misconception that Hubbs is actually employed by the university. The Vol Network is not managed by the Tennessee Athletics Department. It is produced by New York-based IMG College Networks, which produces radio broadcasts for 68 other colleges and universities across the nation, including Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt in the SEC. Employees of the Vol Network are employed by IMG, not the university.

With that said, Hubbs is a veteran journalist who has written countless stories that did not necessarily paint the UTAD in the most favorable light. He hardly takes his marching orders from the university. And if he doesn’t, you better believe that guys like Hyams and others don’t, either.

The truth is that, for reporters, breaking the news of a Gruden hire would be a significant feather in their cap. It would be the biggest story involving a UT sports team in years; who wouldn’t want to be first with that story? All reporters have is their credibility, which is earned by 1.) Being accurate and fair, and 2.) Breaking news. There isn’t a self-respecting journalist anywhere who would agree to “sit” on news of a deal agreement between the university and a coach because the athletics director asked them to do so.

Season-ticket holders aren’t connected. If we had a dollar for every time someone has inboxed us a new rumor that starts off something like this: “My coworker’s dad is a lifelong season-ticket holder, and he said . . .”

Again, if you follow social media and the messageboards, you’ve seen these reports. It’s as though being a veteran season-ticket holder privileges one to insider information.

The truth is that Tennessee sells tens of thousands of season-tickets each year. Who’s the poor sap within the UTAD that’s charged with staying in constant contact with those tens of thousands of people to keep them in the loop on the coaching search? That’s bound to be a full-time job, isn’t it?

Just for grins and giggles, we reached out to several people who contributed to the Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund and have held season-tickets for most of their adult lives. You might’ve guessed it: none of them have heard from John Currie this week, and none of them have a clue who the next head coach is going to be.

Without photos, it didn’t happen. Okay, let’s admit it: When Bart Fricks — COO of the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants — tweeted “Take a guess who is @calhouns on the river with Peyton?” Saturday evening, we fell for it. An official confirmation from Calhoun’s should have been proof enough that Jon Gruden was in the house, right?

Prior to that, we were amazed that so many people were going bananas over a report that Gruden and Manning were dining together at Calhoun’s on the River based on a single photo of what was purportedly the back of Gruden’s head.

It wasn’t long before Calhoun’s began back-tracking. Still, thousands of UT fans refused to believe the retraction — Currie must have reached out to Calhoun’s and told them to squash the reports, the reasoning went — until an ESPN reporter tweeted a photo of Gruden on the job in Seattle.

But here’s the thing: Jon Gruden — the hottest name on Tennessee’s coaching board, the guy hundreds of thousands of UT fans have coveted as the program’s head coach for the better part of a decade — was supposedly eating inside Knoxville’s most popular gameday restaurant. Not in a banquet room, not in some VIP room carefully tucked away from the tables where us common folks are seated, but right in the middle of hundreds of UT fans who had stopped to eat before trekking over to the stadium to watch the game.

Hundreds of people, hundreds of cell phones, and just one picture of the back of Jon Gruden’s head? Seriously? The reasoning went that Gruden asked for his privacy — even Calhoun’s repeated that one (and, for the record, we love Calhoun’s) — so no pictures were taken.

As if the half-crazed fans inside Calhoun’s were going to comply with that request.

Yeah, right.

Pictures or it didn’t happen.

The players will know just about the time we know. On November 11, shortly after Tennessee lost to Missouri, Jones and Currie met. The topic of their conversation: Jones’ future in Knoxville. At that point, Jones knew he was finished as the Vols’ head coach. He offered to coach the final two games of the season, but Currie declined the offer.

For the next 12 hours or so, the public at large knew little of Jones’ fate, though rumors were swirling about whether there his firing was imminent. But late Sunday morning, Jones met with his staff to deliver the news. Within minutes, the first reporter — national college football writer Bruce Feldman — broke the story.

The more people who know something, the harder it is to keep it a secret. In this case, Jones told only a dozen or two assistants and staffers, and the news quickly got out.

Which leads us to this: last week, a couple of Facebook Tennessee fans aired a podcast claiming that Gruden has agreed to be the Vols’ next coach, saying that the team had already been notified and that a formal announcement was soon coming.

The post went viral, shared by thousands of Tennessee fans who desperately wanted to believe it was true. But, as is usually the case, the entire report could be dismissed because of one single detail. And, in this case, it was the claim that players already knew that Gruden was to be their next coach.

If you’re an administrator, it isn’t as simple as telling a room full of 70 people — not if they’re adults and especially not if they’re 18-to-22 year-old young adults — not to repeat what you’ve just said. The Jones news got out when Jones told a few assistants. Imagine how quickly news would get out if a room full of players knew about it? The only way Currie could keep that quiet would be to lock every player in an isolated room . . . without their cell phones. Players tell their girlfriends, or their mommas, those people tell other people, and news spreads like wildfire.

When the players know, the rest of us will inevitably know within a matter of minutes. The grapevine is pretty amazing in this hyper-connected era.

The boosters don’t run the show. Numerous reports have suggested that some of UT’s most powerful boosters are running here and there, meeting with potential coaches (namely, Gruden) and attempting to work deals — or at least to work through the preliminary stages of deals.

There are hundreds of people who qualify as “boosters” at the University of Tennessee. We know who the biggest are — guys like Haslam and Ergen — but who gets to decide who contributes enough to get on board this power train? Is it the guys who give in excess of $1 million annually to the university? What about the guy who only gives $950,000? Is there a magic number? A line in the sand?

The bottom line is that boosters aren’t running the show on behalf of the athletics director. The athletics director runs the show. Does he get input from boosters? Certainly. He also gets input from former players, university administrators, and others. But when it comes to meeting with potential hires, he’s in charge. Can you imagine the mayhem if groups of rogue boosters were running here and yonder to contact their preferred coaches? Remember, a popular internet rumor this fall has been of some perceived contention between some of the biggest boosters. So what happens if one group is reaching out to their preferred candidate, while the other group is reaching out to their preferred candidate, all acting “on behalf” of the university? It just doesn’t happen that way.

Believe nothing you hear. So there you have it. If it doesn’t add up when the math of common sense is applied, there probably isn’t an ounce of truth to it. That’s reality when you have a bunch of people sharing a bunch of fluff — some of them getting a kick out of how many people they can deceive, others hedging bets and throwing a lot of stuff against the wall accordingly, hoping something will stick so they can earn a name for themselves. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true.”

There’s another adage that’s as old as Lincoln, and this one — coined by Edgar Allan Poe — is actually true: “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

Who knew Poe was talking about college football coaching searches?

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