KNOXVILLE — Tennessee swung and missed twice on Wednesday in its unresolved quest for a new head football coach.
It's unclear where the Volunteers go from here, too.
The day started with Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy reportedly turning down an offer from the Vols and electing to stay in Stillwater before the focus turned to Louisville's Charlie Strong, who amid rampant afternoon speculation decided to remain the Cardinals' coach in a move that one source said came as a surprise to Tennessee officials.
Strong's decision, first reported by Sports Illustrated, will come with a financial boost. According to the SI report, the 52-year-old former defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida will agree to a long-term contract expected to be a "significant commitment" in time and money. The new deal, the report said, could be announced as early as today.
Louisville athletic director told CBS Sports in October he "will match anybody's salary" to keep Strong, who took the Cardinals (10-2) to the Big East Conference's BCS bowl berth in his third season. Strong signed an extension a year ago that bumped his salary to $2.3 million and included a $2.2 million buyout. Tennessee's offer to Strong reportedly was $3.5 million, though that number is unconfirmed.
The means to the end, though, contained the drama that's become typical with college football coaching searches. The Cardinals had a scheduled team meeting at 4:30 p.m. to discuss the upcoming plan for their preparations for the Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida, but Strong managed to avoid the handful of Louisville media members in getting to the meeting. Players weren't allowed to reveal what Strong said in the meeting, and the conflicting reports ensued: some said Strong was staying, others said he was taking the Vols' job and even more said he'd not made a decision.
Tennessee officials, including athletic director Dave Hart, flew to Louisville to meet with Strong, who's team returns mostly intact next season. Louisville also announced recently it would move to the ACC within a couple of years. The Cardinals are 24-14 in Strong's three seasons after winning only four games the season before his arrival.
The afternoon and evening drama was far from the beginning of Tennessee's long Wednesday.
According to a CBS Sports report, Tennessee offered its job to Gundy, who reportedly met with Tennessee officials on Sunday after the Cowboys finished a 7-5 season with a loss at Baylor.
Robert Allen, the Cowboys' sideline reporter, said on his radio show later Tuesday morning that Gundy, who signed an extension in January that bumped his 2012 salary to $3.275 million, would remain in Stillwater, where he's been a player, assistant or head coach for all but five years since his freshman year at Oklahoma State in 1986.
A report from The Oklahoman later confirmed Gundy had chosen to remain the Cowboys' coach. The newspaper reported Tuesday that Gundy was "flirting" with both Tennessee and Arkansas, which hired Wisconsin's Bret Bieliema on Tuesday, in an effort to gain leverage for more control of his program amid a "strained" relationship with athletic director Mike Holder.
The perceived third option, North Carolina's Larry Fedora, would have to leave the Tar Heels' program after just one season. The former Middle Tennessee State, Florida and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator went 34-19 in four seasons at Southern Mississippi before taking North Carolina to an 8-4 record this season. An NCAA-levied postseason ban for recruiting and academic violations under the previous coaching regime kept North Carolina from playing in the ACC championship game against Florida State.
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham released a statement on Wednesday afternoon that only said he and Fedora wouldn't "address rumors about individual jobs" that open each year.
"It's been my policy since I have been a director of athletics not to comment or engage in discussion regarding a coach's job until such time that there is a change in a coach's employment status," Cunningham said in the statement. "Speculation about the future of employment status of a head coach can be detrimental to an athletic program."
Perhaps more telling -- and more disheartening for disgruntled Tennessee fans -- is what Fedora reportedly is telling recruits. North Carolina verbal commitment Jordan Fieulleteau told the Charlotte News and Observer that Fedora told him he wasn't leaving after just one season.
"I was just like, you can be straight up with me," the Raleigh receiver told the newspaper. "I was like, I committed to you and the school, so I just feel like -- let me know, are you going to leave? And he was like, 'No. That's all rumors.'
"He plans on staying at UNC for many years to come and [told me] not to worry about it, not to listen to what everybody else is saying."
Tennessee's players seemed to take it all in stride, as a handful of them were joking amongst themselves on Twitter about which one of them should be their next coach. The fans, though, are much more restless. It's been 18 days since Tennessee dismissed Derek Dooley after the Vols' third consecutive losing season.
It appears the wait for Dooley's replacement could last a little longer.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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