Who will lead the Volunteers next fall?
Butch Jones didn’t even make it to end of this season, as he was fired as Tennessee’s head coach on Nov. 12 after the Volunteers’ 50-17 loss at Missouri. Tennessee went 34-27 in Jones’ four-plus seasons, but just 14-24 in SEC games and are 4-7 overall and winless (0-7) in conference play entering Saturday’s finale against Vanderbilt.
While Tennessee isn’t the only high-profile job available (not even in the SEC), athletic director John Currie shouldn’t lack for candidates as he will make his first big hire since taking over the job in February. In fact, depending on which rumors you listen to, Currie's list could include everything from a Super Bowl-winning head coach to a Big Ten defensive coordinator to someone already in the SEC.
So who will be Tennessee’s head coach next season? Athlon’s editors and contributors provide their picks:
Who Will be Tennessee's Head Coach in 2018?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Tennessee is in an interesting spot this offseason. In addition to Georgia’s rise in the SEC East, Florida is also hiring a new coach and aimed high by targeting Chip Kelly or Scott Frost. The candidate pool for coaching hires isn’t particularly deep this offseason, but there are plenty of names that make sense for Tennessee. The Volunteers should at least inquire if coaches like Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente or Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher have any interest. The answer is probably no, but it never hurts to inquire. While a good chunk of the Tennessee fanbase wants Jon Gruden, this program should be able to hire a proven coach at the college level. Which brings me to my pick: Dan Mullen. He’s won consistently at the SEC West’s toughest job and knows how to develop quarterbacks and build successful offenses. Considering what Mullen has been able to accomplish at Mississippi State, he should be able to win at a higher level at a program with more resources like Tennessee. If not Mullen, coordinators like Ohio State’s Greg Schiano and Penn State’s Joe Moorhead are two names to watch. And in the head coaching ranks, Memphis’ Mike Norvell and SMU’s Chad Morris should also be on the radar.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
I’m not buying the #Grumors and I don’t think Tennessee is going to get Chip Kelly or Scott Frost either. If I’m the Volunteers, I at least make Dan Mullen tell me no, as I would like to see what he can do with a program that has more resources and a bigger profile than Mississippi State.
Tennessee AD John Currie has a choice — does he try to land an established head coach that has had success on the Power 5 level or does he try and mine the next gem to come from the Group of 5 ranks? Volunteers fans may not accept “starting over” with an unproven name again (considering how the last three hires have gone), but similar to Nebraska, I wonder if the job has lost some of its appeal. To that end, I won’t discount Neal Brown's (Troy) chances of winding up with the job. However, if Currie wants a “veteran,” then my pick is Bobby Petrino, who relocates a little further south in his return to the SEC. Hopefully, he won’t ride his motorcycle into his introductory press conference.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
I think Dan Mullen would be an excellent fit at Tennessee. I know a lot of Florida fans have been hoping that Mullen would come to Gainesville, but it doesn’t appear the administration values him as a high candidate.
Since taking over in Starkville, Mullen has consistently made Mississippi State a competitive team. Most head coaches have either struggled to win at Mississippi State or used it as a launching pad after a few seasons. With Mullen at the helm, the Bulldogs are 69-45 overall and have qualified for a bowl game every season since his first (2009) in Starkville.
While Mullen has interviewed for several jobs since 2009, the Tennessee job may be the one he cannot refuse. Mullen has done a great job mentoring and finding quarterbacks, something that Tennessee could really use.
Given what Mullen has accomplished with Mississippi State, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he can turn the Volunteers into an SEC contender once again, and it could happen rather quickly.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
It’s crazy to me that a school like Tennessee has had a hard time locking down a top-flight head coach since the departure of Phillip Fulmer. I believe the Tennessee brass has learned its lesson and they need to go out, spend money and make a splash. There’s a big-splash candidate out there who isn’t being mentioned for a lot of head coaching jobs, but I have a weird hunch Tennessee shocks everyone and pulls the trigger on him. I like Greg Schiano as the next head coach at Tennessee.
Elton Hayes (@EHDC12)
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear: Jon Gruden is not coming to Tennessee. Let me repeat: Jon Gruden is not coming to Tennessee. Now, we can proceed.
Timing is everything, and Tennessee athletic director John Currie has the misfortune of jostling with coveted destinations Florida and UCLA, and his job is not expected to get easier, as it's possible that the Texas A&M and Nebraska jobs could become available, too.
For all of Butch Jones' shortcomings, there's no doubt he stabilized a faltering program, which bodes well for his successor, who I believe will be Mississippi State's Dan Mullen.
Mullen has been able to elevate the Bulldogs to respectability in the SEC West, and he's done so at arguably the most difficult destination in the division. Mullen was Florida's offensive coordinator during the Urban Meyer years, which also gives him familiarity of the SEC East. Tennessee boasts great facilities and well-stuffed coffers, which makes Mullen a dangerous threat in Knoxville. While Mullen doesn't have the name buzz of Chip Kelly or even Gruden, he's a proven commodity whose body of work the past nine years offers all the indicators that he will succeed as head man for the Volunteers.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
Tracking airplanes and stalking local eateries are just a couple of pastimes recently adopted by a rabid Tennessee fan base that will seemingly go to any length to dissect any #Grumor that surfaces. And while Jon Gruden hasn’t “officially” been eliminated as a possibility to fill the head coaching vacancy, it’s looking more and more likely that Vol Nation’s crack detective work could all be in vain. Meanwhile, Tennessee athletic director John Currie remains silent regarding the coaching search. But that hasn’t stopped the media from running wild with an almost endless list of potential replacements for Butch Jones. Dan Mullen, Justin Fuente, David Cutcliffe, Greg Schiano, Matt Campbell, Dave Clawson and Jeff Brohm are just a few of the names being tossed around. But I think Scott Frost will be the next head coach at Tennessee.
Anyone not named Jon Gruden or Chip Kelly probably isn’t going to be well-received by a demanding Tennessee fan base initially. That said, I think Frost is the one realistic candidate that Vol Nation could get behind quickly, provided he brings in a top-notch support staff. He relates well to recruits and his track record suggests that he could turn the program around in short order. There is a lot more smoke around Frost landing at Florida or at his alma mater Nebraska. However, the powers that be at Tennessee have indicated that money will not be an object this time around. That may be enough to lure Frost to Rocky Top and away from other suitors.