The Tennessee Volunteers’ search for a football coach continues. Athletic director Dave Hart has already had his wish list decimated. Jon Gruden, Bob Stoops, Jimbo Fisher, Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong have all reportedly turned down the Big Orange, checking the “no” box on the orange and white checkerboard.
As if running through the “T” made by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band, the Volunteers are at a crossroads and must decide in which direction Peyton Manning’s alma mater is headed.
After marking off so many big-time names, now is not the time for the Vols to be indecisive or settle for the first coach who says “yes.” Now is the time to make a bold move to re-establish UT football. Now is the time for Tennessee to hire Jim Tressel.
Jim Tressel is the best coach available
Because of the off-field NCAA baggage Tressel brings from Columbus, Ohio, he is currently on the market. It can be argued that he should remain jobless. His prior on-field coaching résumé and results, however, cannot be denied.
“The Vest” has a 241–79–2 combined record (74.8 winning percentage) over 25 years as a college coach. At Youngstown State, Tressel went 135–57–2, with four Division I-AA national championships and six national championship game appearances in 15 seasons from 1986-2000. At Ohio State, Tressel carried a 106–22 record from 2001-2010, with seven Big Ten titles, eight BCS bowl appearances, three BCS national title game appearances and an undefeated 14–0 BCS national championship campaign in 2002.
But the Buckeyes boss cracked under NCAA pressure, failing to report violations and lying to investigators in the now infamous “Tattoo-Gate” scandal. As a result, Tressel was fired at Ohio State, stripped of 12 wins from the 2010 season and given a five-year show cause by the NCAA — but more on that later.
Tennessee needs to hire a proven coach
For the third time in four years, there is a vacancy at the pinnacle of Rocky Top. The chair where the head football coach sits remains empty. Not the humiliating stool where Derek Dooley squatted to whine his way to a 16–21 record over three seasons or the airline seat in which Lane Kiffin sat to fly across the country after one soap opera season, but the throne where Phillip Fulmer, Johnny Majors and Robert Neyland combined to build an empire — a proud football program that has claimed six national championships and 16 conference titles.
The Vols are not going to a bowl game for the second straight season; they’ve failed to qualify for a bowl in three of the last five seasons and four of the last eight. At this point in program history, UT can’t go out on a limb with a hotshot assistant or an unproven son-of-a big shot. Tennessee needs to ink a real deal coach who has proven himself prior to arriving in Knoxville.
The Volunteers are a sleeping giant…
Despite all their recent struggles, the Vols remain one of the few potential national championship-caliber programs. Only 11 schools have raised the crystal after winning the BCS national championship — Tennessee is one of them, having won the inaugural BCS title game following the 1998 season.
National title aspirations aren’t pie in the sky dreams, they’re a recent reality for a team that finished in the final AP Top 25 in all but four of Fulmer’s 17 years in charge but has failed to do so in the four seasons since.
Tennessee also boasts 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium and top-flight facilities that have pumped full of Manning money. The traditions of the Vol Walk, running through the T, the Vol Navy, checkerboard end zones, Smokey howling and fans singing “Rocky Top” are all attractive selling points. There have been 12 Volunteers drafted in the first round and 63 total since 2000, albeit only three total in the past two draft classes.
…but Tennessee is certainly not a quick fix
The climb back to bowl eligibility, Top 25 rankings, SEC East title contention and, ultimately, BCS bowl invitation status will take time. The stagnant last years of Fulmer, cut-and-run tactics of Kiffin, and arrogant ignorance of Dooley have compounded problems and made the reclamation project an uphill battle.
No doubt, there would be instant results under Tressel, who turned 60 on Dec. 5. But the proven program builder with a reputation for disciplined teams and a conservative style would need time of his own while dealing with the NCAA noose around his neck.
After being given “at least four different opportunities to report” information on players receiving impermissible benefits, Tressel was slapped with a five-year show cause — meaning Tennessee would have to receive permission from the Committee on Infractions and “show cause” for not being penalized as a result of hiring Tressel.
From there, Tressel would be suspended from team meetings, practices and games for the first five weeks of the season. Tennessee would be ineligible for a bowl during Tressel’s first season. The university and its new coach would also have to meet with the NCAA every six months until Dec. 2016. Otherwise, barring additional NCAA action, it would be business as usual after the first five weeks of Tressel's tenure.
The Vest would look great in Big Orange
In the wake of the Bruce Pearl fiasco, Tennessee would catch plenty of heat early on from high-horsed, holier-than-thou media and message board types. But in the long run, if Tressel ran a clean program, the UT-Tressel combination could result in another decade of dominance for the Volunteers.
Or, Tennessee can go with Plan E, F, or G. Hart can hire a middling man he never really wanted for the job in the first place and then do this all over again in three or four years.