Where will Tennessee turn for a replacement for Kiffin?
The Tennessee job is an attractive one. It might not quite be USC or Notre Dame, but it's among the elite gigs in all of college football, and one worthy of a top coaching prospect. However, it is not a job without its share of problems.
The biggest issue for any new coach will be the expectations. Tennessee believes it should be in the hunt for the national title every year, but it hasn't enjoyed the same success over recent years as other top SEC schools like Florida, Alabama and LSU. And any new coach will have to succeed very, very soon. The talent level dipped at the end of the Phil Fulmer era, and Lane Kiffin was just starting to turn things around on the recruiting trail before he bailed. Step one will be to get the recruiting pipeline flowing again.
Now the problem is finding the right head coach ... and now. National Signing Day is three weeks away and many of the top star prospects who were locks for Knoxville might be re-routed to Los Angeles by Kiffin and his USC staff. Tennessee needs a new coach to not only stop the bleeding, but to take advantage of the turmoil at Florida and the down year at Georgia to try to become the star of the SEC East. It also needs a coach to see this job as a destination.
Kiffin was going to be the main man for Tennessee, but he didn't know USC was going to open up, and can't be faulted too much for moving up the ladder. Now it's up to Tennessee to be the place for another top coach to consider as a top-rung job. No one expected this to be open, but now there are going to be several big names interested.
A look at some of the names Tennessee administrators may consider:
7. Phil Fulmer ... Odds: 75-1
Yeah, that Phil Fulmer. He has always been Mr. Tennessee, and didn't burn any bridges after he was canned after several unremarkable seasons. It's not that anyone dislikes Fulmer, and it would be a seamless transition to jump right back into the job and salvage something out of a bad situation, but this would be just a band-aid. There was a reason Fulmer was fired; he didn't bring in the top players and didn't win enough big games. If Tennessee wants a coach to take the program to the next level and keep it there on a consistent basis, it can't go the retread route.
6. Bronco Mendenhall ... Odds: 50-1
The BYU head coach's name has been thrown out there for most of the key openings, partly because he's young, partly because he's been tremendously successful in a short time, and partly because no one believes that BYU is a big enough program to keep a hot coaching prospect. While the first two parts of that might be right, don't assume that BYU isn't sort of a destination job for someone like Mendenhall. He has fit in perfectly in Provo and has some some excellent talent coming into the mix over the next few seasons (with some trickling in here and there because of Church missions). BYU is going to be very good for a while, and Mendenhall isn't a lock to bail for another job any time soon. That doesn't mean he's not on the list of Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton.
5. Gary Patterson ... Odds: 40-1
Everyone can't wait to get Patterson out of Fort Worth. He has done so much with the TCU program and has made it such a consistent powerhouse that it's assumed that he'll be off to a bigger program soon. But he has shown no interest in taking any other job, and unlike 99% of coaches who have to say that they love where they are, Patterson actually believes it. It's going to take a whale of an offer to get Patterson, but he would be a good enough name to get the Vol fans fired up. The one knock is his recruiting ability ... he hasn't had to do it at a big-time level. Patterson's skill is finding the right players for TCU and taking athletes at one position and making them stars elsewhere. Tennessee wants four- and five-star recruits, and that's not guaranteed if Patterson takes over.
4. Kevin Sumlin ... Odds: 35-1
There's no real smoke here, but he was on the list for the openings at Kansas, Louisville, Cincinnati, and he's now in the mix at South Florida. He'd take the Tennessee job in a heartbeat, but it'll be hard to sell the Vol Nation after his inability to put together any semblance of defense at Houston. However, he took what Art Briles started offensively and made it better, and with QB Case Keenum returning for another year, and the offense all but certain to be among the nation's leaders in yards and points, he's not in any hurry to leave if Tennessee doesn't turn out to be interested.
3. Troy Calhoun ... Odds: 20-1
He almost got the job in 2008, but the Vols went with Kiffin. Since then, Calhoun's Air Force team has continued to shine and he has been able to do more with less than almost any coach outside of Navy's Ken Niumatalolo. The problem is that his offenses haven't been geared toward a pro-style passing attack. The option attack run at Air Force would work wonders at Tennessee, but that would fly in the face of everything the program of Peyton Manning, Heath Shuler (who was a runner, but also a whole lot more), and the Clausens have been about. He'd be a relatively tough sell, but he's a whale of a coach.
2. David Cutcliffe ... Odds: 15-1
He makes sense, and Peyton Manning wants him to be the head man, but he's also a coach who failed to maintain a high level of success at Ole Miss, and got canned for it. It's iffy whether or not he'd be the one to restore Tennessee to glory, but his offenses would light up the SEC, and any quarterback prospect worth his salt would beg to sign on. As the Duke head coach, Cutcliffe made Thaddeus Lewis one of the ACC's top passers. The key would be the assistants, as Cutcliffe would have to do what Auburn's Gene Chizik did and assemble a staff that could not only recruit, but could give the Vols a schematic advantage (to go Charlie Weis here), even when the talent level isn't quite as high as some of the other top SEC schools.
1. Will Muschamp ... Odds: 3-1
Not only would Muschamp, the current defensive coordinator at Texas, immediately put an end to the crisis, but he'd actually be an upgrade over Kiffin, who was a good prospect, but still has yet to show the world that he can make a team shine. Muschamp is likely the Longhorns' next head coach if he sticks around, but Mack Brown doesn't show any sign of slowing down, and is expected to be around for at least another five years.
While Muschamp is in no hurry to be a head coach (he's being paid mid-level head-coach money, making $1 million a year at Texas), Tennessee would more than triple his salary and it would be a job big enough to get him to leave Austin. It'll be his job for the taking, and if he's not the hire, there will be several very, very disappointed Tennessee fans. He's The Guy.
And there’s one final option …
The Field ... Odds: 10-1
Randy Edsall of Connecticut, Chris Petersen of Boise State, Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, Houston Nutt of Ole Miss, and every other decent name has been talked about on message boards, radio shows, and uninformed blogs (some of which call the Boise State head coach Chris Peterson). Hamilton will have to work quickly if it isn't Muschamp, and remember, Kiffin was a bit of a curve ball last year.
Tennessee will try to go big, it'll try to go splashy, and it wouldn't be a shock if the program went a whole other direction.