The news that Tennessee parted ways with coach Butch Jones on Sunday afternoon pushed the college football carousel into overdrive. But the fundamental problem with the Tennessee job – and a strong reason why athletic director John Currie was queasy about firing Jones until it became obvious he had to – is that Florida is set to dictate the market. The rest of the SEC – Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Ole Miss – can line up behind the Gators in their upcoming searches.
Tennessee has been a second-tier program essentially since the decline of Phil Fulmer in the mid-2000s. The emergence of Alabama as the SEC’s alpha dog, the SEC West’s push to dominance and losing 12 of 13 to Florida on the field have solidified Tennessee into SEC also-ran status.
To figure out who Tennessee will hire, it’s necessary to start by peeking at how Scott Stricklin’s first major search as Florida’s athletic director is going. Since firing Jim McElwain on Oct. 29, Florida has started to research candidates behind the scenes.
We wrote the day after the firing that the three prime candidates for that position will be UCF’s Scott Frost, Chip Kelly and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. That trio still remains in focus, with sources indicating that a thorough vetting of Kelly has begun. That includes calls to NFL executives to do general background on Kelly and exploration of his NCAA issues at Oregon.
The timeline of the search may offer the most clues as to how Stricklin will play his hand. Don’t expect Florida to formally reach out or attempt to interview Frost until after the American Athletic Conference title game on Dec. 2. Central Florida (9-0) is blitzing through an undefeated season, and neither side has any interest breaking the sanctity of that run.
Frost, who became a father last week, is locked in on finishing this UCF season. He and his family are genuinely happy in Orlando and like everything about UCF.
When UCF’s season ends, he’ll evaluate his options through the prism of where he’s most likely be able to win a national title. The answer to that would still leave Florida as the most likely option, as the soon-to-be open job at Nebraska, his alma mater, simply doesn’t have the same recruiting base as Florida. Frost has developed a good reputation among high school coaches in the state in a short period, which could lead to a smooth transition to Gainesville.
But who is the first choice? The timeline will likely tell us sooner than later. That’s because Kelly doesn’t have obligations to anyone other than his weekly appearances on ESPN. With sources saying Stricklin is doing his due diligence, the timeline could well unfold this way. If UF has zeroed in on Kelly as its top choice, and he’s reciprocated interest, it’s likely that a deal would come before the AAC title game.
Kelly is a proven commodity, as going 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon established him as one of college football’s most innovative minds of this generation. He’s the surest bet on the board to rejuvenate a program.
There are some quirks to Kelly, many of which revolve around his stated preference of being locked in on coaching his team. Kelly isn’t keen on the booster glad-handing, rubber-chicken banquet speeches and general day-to-day hysteria that come with high-profile coaching jobs. Kelly has a low-key personality off the field, and he’s reiterated to friends that “fit and people” will be the ultimate determinations of where he coaches next.
Kelly wasn’t thought to be intrigued by SEC jobs, but Florida presents a different dynamic as it has more of Kelly’s preferred East Coast vibe. For now, it’s not known if each party is completely sold on each other. But the mutual exploration process is underway.
There’s the sticky matter of a new SEC rule that basically states that any coach with significant NCAA issues in their past stop will require a phone call from the university president to the SEC commissioner to make the hire. In other words, there’d be another layer in the hiring process. Hypothetically speaking, this may give a university pause and perhaps prevent serial cheaters from being hired and running another program that has wound up in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation.