Tennessee players on facing #1 Alabama
The next two games might leave Tennessee fans more envious than angry.
Up next is No. 1 Alabama at Neyland Stadium. Then comes No. 9 South Carolina in Columbia.
The programs share more than top-10 status. They both have succeeded by hiring big-name football coaches.
And hiring football coaches is suddenly topical again in Knoxville now that back-to-back losses have left the Vols three games under .500 two and a half seasons into the Derek Dooley era.
Alabama and South Carolina make hiring look ridiculously easy. Who needs headhunters? Why bother with coaching searches? You simply ask the best coach available "What will it take?" Then meet his demands.
Tennessee has followed a less prominent course in the hiring process. Phillip Fulmer had never been a head coach when UT promoted him as Johnny Majors' replacement in 1992. Lane Kiffin's only head-coaching experience was a brief fling with the Oakland Raiders before the Vols hired him after their 2008 season. Dooley, who replaced Kiffin a year later, had a losing record in his three seasons as a head coach at Louisiana Tech.
The exception was Majors, who returned to his alma mater as coach after winning a national championship at Pittsburgh in 1976.
Now, after struggling for most of eight seasons, would UT be willing to attract and pay the asking price of a proven coaching star? If not, then why would you make a change three years into a coach's tenure?
Obvious answer: You don't win enough games.
Six isn't enough. After back-to-back 6-7 and 5-7 seasons, it's reasonable to expect at least seven regular-season victories.
Tennessee has more talent now than when it hired Dooley. It has been significantly more competitive against good teams this season than in Dooley's first two. But to validate its progress, it still needs to win more games than it did in 2010 or 2011.
Suppose the next two games against nationally ranked teams go according to form, UT drops to 3-5, then wins its last four games. Given Dooley's starting point as a hurried replacement for Kiffin, a 7-5 record should warrant giving him more time.
A won-loss record is the best determinant, but fan apathy also is a factor. You saw that during the Vols' decline under Fulmer.
If UT fans stay away in droves for the last few home games, athletic director Dave Hart should consider that as well. He has tickets to sell and donations to elicit.
There's nothing complicated about how to energize your fan base. Just follow Alabama's lead. Or South Carolina's.
And you don't have to look hard to find the best coach available. Former Super Bowl-championship coach Jon Gruden, who has been the best coaching rumor in East Tennessee for the last five years, can't satisfy his competitive urges as a "Monday Night Football" analyst forever. Bobby Petrino, who won big at both Louisville and Arkansas, is out of work.
Availability notwithstanding, neither one of them is as much of a sure thing as Saban or Spurrier when they were last hired by Alabama and South Carolina, respectively. Saban had been successful at more than one school and won a national title at LSU. Spurrier won an ACC championship at Duke before he won a national championship and six SEC titles at Florida.
Gruden hasn't coached college football in more than 20 years. Petrino will have to haul his off-the-field baggage into every recruit's living room. That's why I don't consider them as surefire as Saban and Spurrier, but I would expect either Gruden or Petrino to be successful in any college coaching job.
And after all that has gone wrong at Tennessee the last five years, it would take a hire of that magnitude to convince fans that the school is committed to building a championship program.