Kennan Franks

December 2, 2017

A year from now, this will all be forgotten. Heck, the football world might forget about Tennessee’s search for a new head football coach by the spring. One thing is certain, though. The Tennessee football program will continue. No matter how much the mainstream media continues to criticize the Volunteers, Tennessee football will prevail.

The Ouster of Butch Jones

Yes, Jones went 9-4 in consecutive seasons but was still on the proverbial “coaches hot seat.” Tennessee fans clamored for more, but Jones couldn’t deliver in 2017. One team failed to win a game in the SEC this season – Tennessee. That is simply unacceptable and, after five years of wallowing in relative mediocrity it was time for Jones to go. After a brutal 50-17 loss to that juggernaut known as Missouri – that’s the same Missouri that started the season 1-5 – Jones was let go.

The Search, Part I

The Tennessee football program deserves a quality football coach. Athletic director John Currie set out to find him. Several names were linked to the job, including current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden who served as an assistant at the school several years ago. With a number of other coaching jobs available, there seemed to be a healthy talent pool available.

Exactly one week ago, the search appeared to be over. Tennessee reached a deal with current Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to become the new head coach. As news of the impending hire reached the UT fan base, uproar began. Fans began to protest on campus and even Tennessee state legislators chimed in expressing their discontent with the hire of Schiano. Yes, Schiano served as an assistant under Joe Paterno at Penn State and yes, anyone can make all sorts of claims regarding Schiano and the whole Jerry Sandusky debacle. The bottom line is this. The Penn State child abuse scandal is not the reason why Tennessee decided not to hire Greg Schiano.

Schiano was not hired at Tennessee because he simply isn’t good enough. Vols fans do not want another Jones. Schiano coached at Rutgers for 11 seasons. His overall record? 68-67. He spent two years in the NFL as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The record there? 11-21. Yes, Schiano did have some success at Rutgers, but 8-5 and 9-4 are okay at a university not steeped in tradition. A 9-4 record and a berth in the Pinstripe Bowl aren’t going to cut it in Knoxville. That is why Schiano was not hired at Tennessee.

The Search, Part II

As Currie continued to the task of finding the next leader of the Vols football program, he ran into some roadblocks. David Cutcliffe, who served as offensive coordinator under Philip Fulmer at UT, decided he would like to finish his coaching career at Duke where he has enjoyed some success. Currie talked to Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy about the job. After some consideration, Gundy likely used Tennessee’s courting to negotiate a pay raise at Oklahoma State. North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren did the same. After being turned down by a handful of potential candidates, Tennessee decided it was time for Currie to step aside as athletic director. Enter the one guy who truly knows Tennessee football – Philip Fulmer. The university hired the Hall of Fame coach and winner of 152 games in Knoxville as the new athletic director. Fulmer is now in charge of finding the Vols next head coach.

The Candidates

If you think the pool of potential candidates has fizzled in relation to the Tennessee job, think again. All Tennessee fans want is someone who is going to make the Vols relevant again. Someone with the vision to build a legitimate contender for the SEC East Division and conference title year-in and year-out on. A candidate with a little orange and white in his blood wouldn’t hurt either.

What about Tee Martin? Tennessee fans remember Martin very well. He guided the Vols to a national championship in 1998. He just finished his second season as offensive coordinator of the Pac-12 champion USC Trojans. Martin is only 39 years old and has never been a head coach, but every big time coach had to start somewhere. Fulmer could help Martin assemble a strong staff to help the cause.

Kevin Steele, the Auburn defensive coordinator, is another name that continues to be mentioned. Steele, 59, played linebacker at Tennessee. Steele has spent almost two decades as a high-profile assistant with some of the biggest programs in the nation – Auburn, LSU, Clemson, and Alabama. The knock against him is that he was brutally awful in his one stint as a head coach. He went 9-36 in four years at Baylor back in the early 2000s.

It was reported that before his departure from the AD position that Currie did make contact with Washington State’s Mike Leach. He could still be in play, but one of Fulmer’s first contacts was made to former LSU coach Les Miles. There may not be a more experienced coach with such a successful track record available as Miles. The Mad Hatter, as he is known in the coaching ranks, spent 11-plus seasons in Baton Rouge accumulating a 114-34 record, three SEC West titles, two conference championships, and a national title in 2007.

Final Thoughts

Hiring the next football coach at the University of Tennessee is a huge decision. Tennessee football is at a crossroads and the program needs the right person. So what if the Vols balked on Schiano. So what if other coaches said ‘no’ to the job. Is the mainstream media all over Florida State for the fiasco that saw Jimbo Fisher leave to go to Texas A&M?

Has the media even cared to bring up Arizona State and its firing of Todd Graham? The Sun Devils fired Graham after ASU went 7-5 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12, and beat their in-state rival Arizona. Vice president for athletics – ASU’s fancy title for athletic director – Ray Anderson said in relation to Graham’s firing that the school was just tired of being average. So, what did they do? Arizona State went out and  hired a new head coach who has never been one at the college level and who went 54-74 in that capacity in the NFL (Herm Edwards).

When the time is right and when the person is right, Tennessee will have its next head football coach. When that happens, the Vols will hopefully be moving forward while the media forgets what has become the Great Tennessee Coaching Search.

September 24, 2017

Okay, I get it. Tennessee won the game and they have a 3-1 record after four games. With two of those games against Georgia Tech and Indiana State, most observers would say they’re probably right about where most fans expected them to be heading into next week’s showdown at home versus Georgia.

But that’s probably the reaction from the outside. Fans who live and die with this team have a whole different perspective. Let’s see. They were playing a very bad UMass team in their home stadium on Saturday. The Minutemen came into the game with an 0-4 record with losses to the likes of Hawaii, Coastal Carolina (they have a football team??), Old Dominion and Temple.

Plus, the Vols were coming off of that tough last second loss against SEC rival Florida. A team, by the way, that was still missing a good portion of their best players. But let’s get back to their performance on Saturday against UMass. Using the words “lackluster” or “uninspired” may actually be giving them too much credit. Sure, the defense can be given credit, especially the defensive front, but they were going against arguably one of the worst offensive lines in college football.

Offensively, the team totaled 319 yards against the Minutemen, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Late in the game, the fans who were left (many departed in the middle quarters), were booing a non-productive offense late in the game. After taking a 14-6 lead at the half, the team managed only 3 points after halftime while allowing 7 to UMass. If it wasn’t for the Minuteman failing to convert a fourth down attempt late in the game, with their backup quarterback, who knows, we could be talking about a Tennessee loss today, which is actually how it feels.

So what really happened on Saturday at Neyland Stadium? Well, it’s pretty clear the team was not ready to play. They looked bad against an 0-4 team and ended up “escaping” with a 4-point win that nobody can be proud of. Were they still reeling from that Florida loss, or were they “looking ahead” to next week’s game against Georgia? Nobody really knows, but one thing is for sure, teams can’t take anyone lightly in college football. Talent is definitely part of the equation, but heart, desire and competitiveness also play a huge role.

And with just 12 games on a team’s regular season schedule, why should they not be able to get up for all of them? They all count one, and the players and coaches should be prepared to do their best in each and every one. But frustrated Tennessee fans obviously didn’t see their team’s best effort on Saturday. I mean, if you can’t dominate, or at least win easily, against an 0-4 team on your home turf, maybe you’re not very good.

The Vols were favored by 28 points in a game in which they won by four. Although the spread may have been higher that it should have been, Tennessee didn’t even come close. Which raises more questions about this team. In the 5th year of the Butch Jones era, he should have “his” players and his program fully in place in Knoxville. But what we are seeing to this point in the 2017 season doesn’t provide much long-term optimism for the loyal Tennessee fan.

It took Jones the better part of 45 minutes to meet the press after this game, leading to speculation about what his postgame message to his team was. Or maybe he was just figuring out how to explain to the media what had just happened. Jones called the performance “unacceptable” and that everything “starts with me.”

Volunteer fans certainly can’t disagree with those statements. If everything starts with him and the performance was unacceptable, what does that say about Butch Jones? It says that as head coach, he didn’t have his team ready to play the game on Saturday. They weren’t ready from a football execution standpoint or from a motivational standpoint.

You can also questions moves that he made during the game. In the hope of igniting the offense, he inserted backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano in favor of starter Quinten Dormady in the second half but it didn’t make a difference as Guarantano lasted just three series before he returned to Dormady. The changes have ended up creating uncertainty in the team as to who the starter will be going forward.

Now supporters of Jones will point to next week’s game against Georgia. Should they get a win, this game will be forgotten as the team can move to 4-1 with a signature win under their belt. And that may very well be the case. But not many Vols fans have much confidence that will happen. With a stagnant offense, can they really generate enough points to beat a 4-0 Bulldogs team that has scored a total of 124 points so far.

Some critics have already come out and said that Jones may be coaching for his job in the game against Georgia. That remains to be seen. He is signed through the year 2020 and there is a financial commitment that would have to be dealt with should Tennessee decide to let him go early. But it’s becoming clear that the fanbase is growing tired of recent performances and are beginning to question if Jones is the right man for the job.

Fans everywhere expect a lot from their team’s and coaches, and they should. With the amount of money college football coaches make now, expectations should be high. And for Vols fans, they don’t feel that expectations are being reached. But a big win over Georgia can do a lot to change their minds. Chances are, whatever happens, Jones will at least finish out the season before a decision is made.

September 22, 2017

Most Tennessee fans saw the light at the end of the tunnel when the program brought in former Cincinnati Head Coach Butch Jones to coach the team, starting with the 2013 season. Jones was introduced as the school’s 23rd head football coach following three straight losing seasons from his predecessor Derek Dooley.

To take the Volunteers job, Jones turned down offers from other school’s, among them Colorado and Purdue. While at Cincinnati, he led the Bearcats to records of 10-3 and a bowl victory in 2011, and followed that up with a 9-3 record in the 2012 campaign. Previously, he was the head coach at Central Michigan University where he took the job from Brian Kelly, just as he did in Cincinnati.

So here we are, now in Jones 5th season as the Vols coach, and the team has yet to capture one SEC East Divisional title. In his first season, Jones posted a 5-7 record which matched the prior two seasons under Dooley. Granted, he was playing primarily with players brought in under Dooley.

Since then, the team’s record has improved each season. In 2014 they finished 7-6 and the last two years they had identical 9-4 finishes. Critics will say many of those wins were not against SEC and divisional rivals, and they were be partly correct. In the SEC East division, Jones team has posted records of 2-6, 3-5, 5-3 and 4-4 within their own division. Not nearly enough to get to the SEC title game.

So what has the problem been getting the Vols to surpass the likes of Florida and Georgia for a chance to go up against Alabama, Auburn or LSU in the SEC championship? Some might point to the defense, which has given up points in bunches in many of those losses. Others might say that maybe they just don’t have enough overall talent.

A quick review of the recruiting classes since Jones took over shows only one class ranked out of the top 20 in the nation. That was in 2013 when Jones got a late start due to the timing of him taking over. Since then, his classes have ranked 7th in 2014, 4th in 2015, 14th in 2016 and 17th in 2017. I know these are just rankings and many times a three-star player can be as good as a five-star, but it’s safe to say that Tennessee got some talented players.

So it could be that the recruits may not be as good as perceived, or maybe they haven’t been coached and developed to their full potential. Or maybe they are simply late bloomers and some from the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes will start to pay dividends this year or even next.

Or maybe there’s another answer to the question, “why are the Volunteers still looking for their first SEC title under Jones.” Maybe this as is as good as we are going to get from Jones. Could it be that he’s good enough to get his teams to bowl games, but not quite good enough to contend for SEC or National Titles. It’s hard to say, but something the Volunteers should consider. If you look around college football at the truly powerhouse teams, they all have one thing in common. A head coach that has proven himself at the highest of levels. And if that’s where the Tennessee program is looking to go, they may need to consider if they have the right man for the job.