David Climer: Tennessee Vols' dream of Jon Gruden is just that

11:15 AM, Nov 16, 2012   |    comments
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David Climer, Tennessean

On the latest installment of "Monday Night Football," Jon Gruden enthusiastically identified Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry as a Tennessee Volunteer.


The Twitterverse immediately blew up. To some, it was incontrovertible evidence of Gruden's interest in the Tennessee coaching job. His shoutout to UT meant he was leaving ESPN's broadcast booth in favor of the Neyland Stadium sidelines, right?

Never mind that Gruden later called Dexter McCluster an Ole Miss Rebel. Nobody suggested Gruden was the leading candidate to replace first-year Rebels coach Hugh Freeze.

This is the phenomenon of Jon Gruden, particularly as it relates to the likely vacancy at Tennessee. Through idle speculation, wishful thinking or adding 2 and 2 and coming up with 22, many UT fans are convinced Gruden is positioned to replace Derek Dooley as Vols coach.

After all, he is married to a former Vols cheerleader. What more do you need?

This speculation is fueled, in part, by Gruden's failure to deny interest in the job. Never mind that he is following proper protocol by not addressing anything about the position as long as it is occupied. In case you missed it, Dooley is still UT's coach.

If nothing else, Gruden seems to enjoy the attention and the speculation about a possible return to coaching since he's done nothing to quash it. Like his cinematic alter ego, Coach Chuckie has a mischievous streak. Unlike the movie character, Coach Chuckie depends on a sharp wit instead of sharp objects.

All of which leaves UT's fan base hanging on every word -- even if those words aren't coming out of Gruden's mouth.

NFL reporter Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com contributed to the Gruden mania earlier this week during a segment on a Washington, D.C.-based radio show. His comment:

"I think if he ends up anywhere it may be the University of Tennessee. I don't see an NFL job that would appeal to him. I think the Tennessee job, the University of Tennessee, may be where he ends up."

Then ESPN's Chris Mortensen chimed in on another radio show.

"The Tennessee job would be the only collegiate job that I think could really get Jon Gruden's attention," Mortensen said.

Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen? It's a long shot. In his 21 years as a full-time coach, three of those were spent in college football -- one-year assistant positions at Southeast Missouri State, Pacific and Pittsburgh.

It's far more likely that he would go back to the NFL than enter college coaching. Likelier still, he will remain at ESPN.

But for orange-eyed conspiracy theorists, the Gruden-UT connection is fleeting but nonetheless significant.

He was a graduate assistant on John Majors' Vols staff in 1986-87. There, he worked with a number of future head coaches -- Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Walt Harris, Ron Zook and Kevin Steele, plus quality assistants like Ken Donahue, Kippy Brown and Doug Mathews.

Some of those on Majors' staff at the time remember Gruden's energy. But it's not like he projected the aura of a budding X-and-O genius in those formative coaching days. Gruden's greatest contribution to the staff: Fetching coffee for the assistant coaches, always remembering who took cream and who took sugar.

When Gruden was coach of the Oakland Raiders in the late '90s, Fulmer, who was UT's head coach at the time, called the Raiders offices early one morning to congratulate Gruden on a particularly impressive win the night before.

Mindful of the three-hour time difference, Fulmer was prepared to leave a message Gruden could pick up when he got to the office. But instead of voice mail, he heard a male voice.

"Raiders football, coach Gruden," the voice said.

"Jon? Hey, this is Phillip Fulmer. What are you doing?" Fulmer asked.

Without missing a beat, Gruden shot back: "The same thing I did when I was a graduate assistant -- answering the phone."

If you snooze, you lose. And Jon Gruden, the insomniac, doesn't like to lose.

Neither does the University of Tennessee.

Feel free to connect your own dots.

David Climer's columns appear on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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