Like generals, journalists and pundits are always fighting the last war. And it's hard to think of a head coaching search that's been quite as big of a public relations disaster as the Tennessee search since Alabama went looking to replace Mike Shula in 2006. (This was a search that involved, at various times, the supposed courtship of Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban saying no, Rich Rodriguez being Alabama head coach for a few hours, Nick Saban saying no, panic by the Alabama fan base and Nick Saban finally saying yes. And Nick Saban probably said no a couple more times in there somewhere.)
It's a comparison I've made off-handedly, and I'm not alone. And it's a comforting line of thought for Vols fans -- if Alabama got Nick Saban out of that saga, how bad could it get?
The problem is that the Tennessee search, which has reportedly included rejections from Jon Gruden, Mike Gundy and, most recently, Charlie Strong -- that Tennessee search is not quite the same as the Alabama search of 2006. There are at least three key differences to consider, several of which bode poorly for Tennessee.
Tennessee isn't in the same place Alabama was
It's hard to realize this because of the mythology that's grown up around the Three Mikes (and Dennis) Era, but Alabama was actually not quite as bad off when they landed Nick Saban as Tennessee is now. If you were looking at the Alabama program at that time, it was easy to see the potential -- easier than perhaps it is for prospective candidates to see the potential in Knoxville right now.
In the eight seasons before Nick Saban was hired, Alabama had a winning percentage of nearly .566 and put together a .500 or better record in five of those seasons. (And in 2006, the Tide was .500 in the regular season before losing the bowl game.) The program had won 10 games in three of those seasons, including in 2005. The Tide won the SEC in 1999.
Tennessee's winning percentage over the last eight seasons is .520. That time period includes three winning seasons and one year the Volunteers stood at .500 after the regular season. There was one season of 10 wins, the last winning season was in 2009, and the closest Tennessee has come to a conference title was the fluky division championship in 2007.
The other part of this, of course, is that Alabama was emerging from some pretty serious punishment that the NCAA had meted out in response to the Albert Means scandal. Tennessee has had some recent NCAA problems, but nothing on that level, and whatever roster issues they have is because of the continuing turmoil atop the program. In other words, there was a more ready and understandable explanation for why the Tide were floundering and why they would soon turn it around in 2006 than there is vis a vis Tennessee today.
Tennessee is still a good job for the right candidate, but it's not quite as easy a sell as Alabama was in 2006. And that's saying something.
Charlie Strong is not Rich Rodriguez -- for better and worse
This is not to bash Charlie Strong or Louisville -- anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I think Strong is a superb coach that South Carolina should pursue when Steve Spurrier retires, and that Louisville is a deserving team to enter the ACC. But there's really not much of a comparison between Rodriguez saying "no" to Alabama in 2006 and Charlie Strong saying "no" to Tennessee this year.
For one thing, Rich Rodriguez was a West Virginia guy. He spent his playing career as a Mountaineer and had coached either at West Virginia or at another school in the state for all but four years of his coaching career when the Alabama job opened up. He had never played or coached for an SEC school.
Strong has an entirely different set of connections. He's an Arkansas native who spent most of his pre-Louisville career in the SEC, mostly at Florida and South Carolina. Most accounts say he feels some loyalty to Lousville because the Cardinals gave him a chance when most other programs wouldn't, but it's not like he's going to choke up every time the alma mater is played.
But that cuts both ways. The Big East of 2006 might not have been the creaking Balkan nation that it is now, but West Virginia was not anticipating an invitation to the ACC at that moment, either. And Rodriguez's relationship with his athletics director was deteriorating -- one of the main reasons the coach would vacate Morgantown for Michigan the following year.
There is no Nick Saban to be hired
No, Jon Gruden would not be Nick Saban even if he were coming to Tennessee -- and Gruden is not coming to Tennessee. Go ahead, name the available former college coach with a national title who might be willing to return to the college ranks and coach at Tennessee. The only one who might come to mind is Pete Carroll, who has even fewer ties to Knoxville than Gruden does. In fact, the closest Carroll has ever come to Tennessee during his career was a few years coaching at N.C. State. At least Saban had coached in the same conference as Alabama. Not to mention Carroll might hold onto his job and he has a young roster that he might like to develop.
So, next up? Hiring Jim Tressel -- who's shown no signs of wanting to re-enter college coaching -- would be essentially daring the NCAA to look at Tennessee again. Along with Saban, Urban Meyer and Les Miles, we've now covered 10 of the last 11 champions (counting the split title in 2003). The 11th was won by Gene Chizik.
Which is not to say that Tennessee won't get a fine coach who will be successful in Knoxville. But they're probably not going to get another Nick Saban, or at least not someone with that kind of instant credibility. It's unlikely that Dave Hart is looking to Alabama's post-Shula search for inspiration, and maybe we shouldn't either.