There were very few things that Dave Hart made clear during his press conference on the firing of Derek Dooley and the search for his successor, but one is that coordinators need not apply. That culls some of the names that you might hear from time to time, like Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Clemson offensive chief Chad Morris.
And I'm not convinced that some of the other names you'll hear mentioned -- like Miami head coach Al Golden and FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher -- are that plausible. Fisher would just as soon stay atop one of the college football's Tiffany programs, I would think. And while Golden might look at a way out of the smoking crater that is likely to be the Hurricanes' football program, it would be wise to remember that: (a) We don't yet know how deep that crater will be; and (b) Golden has no real ties to Tennessee or the region that would make him a logical choice.
So here's a handy list of the most likely candidates to get the job, in more or less the order I think they are to get a call from Dave Hart. I've omitted Phil Fulmer because, while I think it might be funny, I don't think it's likely at all.
Jon Gruden, ESPN: Because the last time Tennessee hired a former Oakland Raiders coach, it worked out splendidly. There is bizarrely some fire behind this smoke, even to the point that Tennessee and Arkansas are preparing for a bidding war the likes of which we haven't seen in the South since the capital of the Confederacy was moved from
Birmingham Montgomery to Richmond. (I can't help but think that the results are likely to be just as successful, but what do I know?) Gruden is relatively young -- he's 49 -- and doesn't come with any of the ethical baggage that might weigh down a certain former Arkansas head coach. He's also never been more than a position coach at the FBS level of college footall, and if you think that success at the pros leads to success in college, might I suggest you look at the record of one Mike Sherman. (And Sherman actually had a higher winning percentage in the NFL than Gruden.)
David Cutcliffe, Duke: This is by far the most obvious non-Gruden candidate. Cutcliffe was on board for both of Phil Fulmer's conference championships and the national title. After Fulmer went 5-6, he brought then-former Ole Miss head coach Cutcliffe back to Knoxville; the Vols proceeded to go 19-8 over the next two seasons. Cutcliffe left again to take the Duke job; Tennessee went 5-7. The sharper minds among you might discern a pattern here. He's 21-38 at Duke -- but this is Duke we're talking about -- and in 2010 led their offense to its highest average yardage per game since some guy named Steve Spurrier was in Durham. And Tennessee was reportedly ready to hire him the last time they found themselves in this position. (I never got a firm read on why it didn't happen.) The one strike against him might be his age -- at 58, Cutcliffe is not exactly young and has had some health problems before.
Charlie Strong, Louisville: The Vols should probably make a call to Strong, but I'm still skeptical he's going anywhere this year. Strong has spent significant time as a coach at three college programs before Louisville: Florida, Notre Dame and South Carolina. I still think he will want to try to see what Spurrier is thinking before he decides if those programs are out, given that Florida and Notre Dame seem to have suitable head coaches for now. Strong is also likely grateful to Louisville for giving him the chance no one else would; it's going to take a very, very good offer from a school outside of his career path to hire him, but maybe Tennessee would fit the bill. (And if Spurrier looks like he's set for another three or four years, Strong might make the jump to the best available program. You might wait a few years on Notre Dame; you don't wait too long on South Carolina.)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: This is one of the more bizarre names that's bounced around from time to time. Mullen is the head coach at an SEC program, last time I checked, so the only real question is whether he thinks he can win the conference in Starkville or not. If he does, and the one thing that Dan Mullen does not lack is self-confidence, then there's no real reason to undertake a massive rebuilding job in Knoxville to do what he thinks he can do anyway (unless the money is insane). But if he thinks that it's going to be hard for the Western Division Bulldogs to get to Atlanta and win there, he might be willing to listen to Tennessee. I'm not a mind-reader, so I don't know the answer to that question.
Butch Jones, Cincinnati: I think Jones is a great head coach and a program will be lucky to have him. But the fact that reports that Jones has been offered the job in Lexington have sparked anger from some Kentucky fans tells you how well he would likely be received in Knoxville. That's not to say he's not on Dave Hart's list. But it is to say that Hart would be making a gutsy call going with the Cincinnati leader, and would probably take some short-term heat from fans if he did.
Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech: He's been mentioned. There is no way that Dykes gets the job. None.
Bobby Petrino, Motorcycle: Just because I know he is going to be mentioned. There is no way that Bobby Petrino will be the next head coach in Knoxville. Feel free to bookmark this post and mock me if I'm wrong about this. Dave Hart made a point to mention "integrity" in his list of qualifications for the job, which was not a coincidence, and he pointed out why -- namely, that Tennessee is on probation. There is no direct link between hiring Petrino and probation, so it's not like the NCAA would be involved -- but the perception and public relations backlash looks to be more than Hart is willing to risk. Rightly or wrongly, Petrino ain't coming to Tennessee.