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Tennessee’s coaching search nears an end

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No sooner had Tennessee’s embarrassing, season-ending loss to Vanderbilt concluded Saturday night than did Vols fans turn their attention to the much-anticipated unveiling of the program’s next head coach.

Butch Jones was fired after a 4-6 start to the season, and Brady Hoke, who went 0-2 as interim coach with a 30-10 loss to LSU and a 42-24 loss to Vanderbilt, is not a candidate to replace Jones.

What has resulted is a remarkably tight-lipped coaching search in Knoxville. If Tennessee athletics director John Currie succeeds at nothing else, he has managed to stump the media, which generally have eyes and ears throughout the athletics department, embedded in the ranks of boosters big and small, and within the Board of Trustees. While Florida’s search to for Jim McElwain’s replacement has been very visible — Chip Kelly turned down the Gators to become the next head coach at UCLA, and UF is now targeting Central Florida’s Scott Frost — Tennessee’s has been completely different.

At this late stage of Tennessee’s coaching search, there is so much smoke that it’s hard to see the flames. Some of it is doubtlessly due to misinformation that is being purposely distributed by the UTAD. Part of it is the result of blind speculation by the talking heads who have to have something to say but aren’t being spoon-fed credible information by their generally reliable sources. And still another part of it is spurred on by the anxiousness of a UT fan base desperate to return to the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s.

So where does that leave us? It appears that Tennessee is days away from announcing its next head coach, but if we’re being honest, no one is completely sure whether that means Currie has “his man” signed and sealed, or if it simply means that Currie is nearing the end of his due diligence and is preparing to make an official offer to his top candidate.

Don’t doubt the latter. While some have speculated that a Tennessee announcement could be forthcoming as soon as Sunday, it is much more likely to be Monday, at the earliest, and could be as late as Wednesday or Thursday. That gives Currie a bit of time to finish up his work. Even if he’s unable to land his top candidate, or even his second choice, the process will speed up exponentially once offers start to be made.

There are a few names that have been rumored as high on Currie’s wish list that can be ruled out. With Florida still searching for its next coach after Kelly rebuffed offers from Gainesville, and with Nebraska firing third-year head coach Mike Riley on Saturday, it’s probably safe to assume that Tennessee is out of the Scott Frost sweepstakes. Gary Patterson appears to be staying put at TCU. Mike Norvell is negotiating a contract extension with Memphis. FAU’s Lane Kiffin said on Twitter that he isn’t interested in the Tennessee job (as if Tennessee would give him the option).

That leaves us with these names:

• Jon Gruden continues to be a name that stirs excitement among Tennessee fans, but this now appears to be a pipe dream with little chance of becoming a reality. Grudanites are quick to point out that the Super Bowl-winning former coach hasn’t shot down reports that he’s interested in the Tennessee job, as was the case in 2012, but there have been numerous reports that Gruden essentially said “thanks but no thanks” to the Vols. There will be many UT fans who say they’re “all in” on Gruden until someone other than the Monday Night Football color commentator is standing at the podium, but it’s probably time for fans to move on from Gruden.

• Chris Petersen has long been high on the wish lists of Power 5 programs with coaching vacancies, but the Washington head coach was not considered a realistic candidate for the Tennessee job until earlier this week, when reports began to emerge that Currie had reached out to Petersen to gauge his interest. Petersen’s 15th-ranked Huskies were taking No. 14 Washington State to the woodshed Saturday night, which will put the wraps on a 10-2 regular season and leave them in the Pac 12 championship game. It seems unlikely that Petersen would agree to overtures from Tennessee with a conference championship game still pending, so if there’s announcement this week, it almost certainly means Petersen isn’t coming — and that very much seems like a long shot, anyway.

• Mike Leach has always been considered a dark horse candidate, but the Washington State head coach has gotten a lot more talk in recent days with reports that UT might be pursuing him. Leach is only one game over .500 in his tenure at Washington State, but has the Cougars in the Top 25 this season, which will end at 9-3. Whether the quirky Leach would fit in as an SEC coach remains uncertain, and it’s even more uncertain whether he’d fit into the Knoxville scene. But he would certainly be entertaining, if nothing else.

• Matt Campbell’s $9.1 million buyout is a very large obstacle to the 37-year-old Iowa State coach being seriously courted by larger Power 5 schools, but it is a name that is still getting serious play. The Cyclones are only 7-5 this season, but that’s a big turnaround from last year’s 3-9 campaign in Campbell’s debut season, and they have two wins over Top 5 teams (TCU and Oklahoma). Campbell’s resume from Toledo is impressive, as well. It seems to be only a matter of time before he is succeeding at a large school.

• Dan Mullen has said he isn’t leaving Mississippi State, but there have been multiple reports that he’s meeting with Currie this weekend. The Bulldogs finished an 8-4 season this year with an upset loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. It was a disappointing finish, by some standards, but Ole Miss was the only unranked team to beat Mississippi State, which also lost to then-No. 1 Alabama, then-No. 11 Georgia and then-No. 13 Auburn. Mullen is already making big money ($4.5 million) in Starkville and is likely to receive a pay raise this off-season. Given the relatively low expectations at Mississippi State, it seems unlikely that he would leave. But if he wants to compete for championships, the timing may be right for Mullen to get out while the getting out is still good. After all, he’s only one year removed from a 6-7 season that caused his star to dim considerably.

• Greg Schiano is a name that is getting a lot of play in recent days, with multiple reports suggesting that Currie is interested in the Ohio State defensive coordinator. Schiano may be one of the top coordinators in the country, and there are even some who think Urban Meyer would not be successful without him. He did a pretty good job building a solid program at Rutgers before coaching the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But there are plenty of drawbacks to Schiano, not the least of which is his tie to Penn State. Schiano coached under disgraced defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in the early 1990s, and court testimony suggested that Schiano had witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy inside Penn State facilities (a claim Schiano refuted).

Then, of course, there’s the possibility that Currie’s hire doesn’t come from that list at all, but that it is instead a left-field hire that catches the Tennessee fan base completely off-guard. That’s a possibility with any coaching search, but it may be an especially realistic possibility with this one, given the degree of secrecy that Currie has managed to enshroud this process with.

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