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Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart hoped to have a coach on campus, clad in an orange tie and ready for work on Thursday.
Instead, after Louisville coach Charlie Strong turned down the Vols' lucrative offer, Hart appears to have moved quickly to his backup plan.
Cincinnati coach Butch Jones is Tennessee's top target, according to a report late Thursday by News Sentinel partner GoVols247. If Hart offers the job, Jones could be introduced as the Vols' new coach today.
The Cincinnati Enquirer said that neither Jones nor athletic director Whit Babcock returned calls for comment all day Thursday. Jones' agent, Trace Armstrong, told the News Sentinel he could not comment on the reports.
The Enquirer reported that the Bearcats called a 7:30 a.m. team meeting for today, although it's not clear when the meeting was scheduled and whether it was meant to address the ongoing coaching rumors or something more routine, like preparations for Cincinnati's trip to the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27.
Jones has been in high demand since the Bearcats' capped a 9-3 season with a victory at Connecticut on Dec. 1. Jones and his wife visited Purdue on Sunday and Colorado on Monday, ultimately turning down both jobs.
The Colorado courtship was particularly bizarre. The Denver Post reported Wednesday that Jones had accepted an offer of five years and $13.5 million. Jones, who was reached by reporters minutes later while eating at a Cracker Barrel in Charlotte, N.C., adamantly denied that he had accepted the job but said he was still "50/50" between Cincinnati and Colorado.
On Thursday, not long after Jones had finally turned down the Colorado job, reports linking him to the Tennessee job emerged.
Cincinnati officials, who have patiently endured his cross-country tour of open coaching jobs, could not have been thrilled by the news. That leads many to believe Jones can't allow the current rumors to fester, and must make a decision between Tennessee and Cincinnati quickly.
Reaction to the prospect of Jones getting the Tennessee job was largely negative online. One UT player even weighed in.
Offensive lineman Antonio "Tiny" Richardson tweeted: "Could someone educate me on who Butch Jones is? Thanks."
Later, he added: "I didn't mean that last tweet in a sarcastic manner either ... I was really curious."
If Jones is the top target, Tennessee likely will try to move quickly to avoid the embarrassment of another public rejection.
Tennessee was confident that it had landed Strong, only to have its offer spurned late Wednesday. Another top target, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, broke his silence on Thursday.
Gundy said he was committed to Oklahoma State and downplayed his level of interest in other jobs.
"In our profession, if you do good, people are going to contact you. If you don't, you're going to get fired," Gundy told reporters.
"The only thing I'm going to say is they haven't gone as deep as what people say," Gundy said.
Meanwhile Scout.com reported that North Carolina coach Larry Fedora told his team that he had no plans to coach anywhere else in 2013.
Jones, who will turn 45 next month, has a career path that has closely followed that of Brian Kelly, his one-time boss at Central Michigan. When Kelly left for Cincinnati after the 2006 season, Jones replaced him, going 27-13 in three seasons. When Kelly left UC for Notre Dame, Jones followed him again. Jones is 23-14 in three seasons with the Bearcats, including a 10-win performance in 2011. Jones grew up in Saugatuck, Mich., and graduated from Ferris State in 1990. Jones made $1.77 million this year. It would cost $1.4 million to buy out his contract.
Hart is seeking a replacement for Derek Dooley, who was fired on Nov. 18 after three losing seasons.
Jones has been to Knoxville before. The Bearcats were routed by Tennessee 45-23 on Sept. 12, 2011, in Neyland Stadium. Cincinnati recovered from the loss to finish the season ranked 25th, giving Dooley his only win against a team that finished the year in the Top 25.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat