KNOXVILLE - Less than 24 hours after a couple of doors slammed shut, another one appears to be opening as the University of Tennessee heads into the 19th day of its search for a new head football coach.
After Louisville's Charlie Strong discussed his decision to remain the Cardinals' coach Thursday morning, the smoke surrounding the Volunteers' search for Derek Dooley's replacement centered on Cincinnati's Butch Jones.
A report by 247Sports labeled the Bearcats' third-year coach as the "front runner" for the Tennessee opening, though it's unclear if the 44-year-old, who has a 50-29 overall record in six seasons as a head coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, holds an offer to be the coach or even has met with UTofficials.
One source close to the Vols program did confirm to the Times Free Press a Cincinnati Enquirer report that the Bearcats have a team meeting scheduled for 7:30 this morning, though the source could not specify the reason for the meeting. Cincinnati, which lost 45-23 to Dooley and the Vols in Knoxville last season, went 9-3 this season with losses to Toledo, Louisville and Rutgers.
The Bearcats play Duke in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 27.
Jones already has been an active part of the coaching carousel. He's attracted interest from Kentucky, Purdue and Colorado and turned down an offer from the Buffaloes on Wednesday. He posted a 27-13 record and won two Mid-American Conference titles with Central Michigan and is 19-6 the past two years in Cincinnati.
He succeeded current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly in both positions.
It's been a rough week for Tennessee in its search. The biggest blow came Wednesday night when Strong, a former defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida, spurned an offer from Tennessee to stay in Louisville, where he's headed to the Sugar Bowl in his third season. According to a source Wednesday night, the decision did surprise Tennessee officials.
Strong said at a Thursday morning news conference that the decision was the toughest one he's made in his 29-year coaching career and credited athletic director Tom Jurich for his support.
"He gave me my first chance to be a head football coach after being an assistant for 27 years," Strong said. "I was always on everyone's short list, but Tom let me know from the very beginning I was the only one on his list. His unwavering loyalty in me and my vision has always been there.
"I knew this would be a big opportunity. As I talked with my family, it became crystal clear to me that I needed to stay here at the University of Louisville. After reflecting for the last couple of days, I know the best decision was to stay here."
Jurich, who helped Louisville earn a move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference last week, said he gave Strong a contract extension last year, when the coach was 2-4 midway through his second season, because he thought he was "invaluable."
"I was 9-10 at the time, and the guy hands me an extension," Strong said. "It's about relationships and people and people believing and trusting in you. How do you walk away from someone who really trusts and believes in you?"
Strong admitted he'd never thought while spending so many years as an SEC assistant he'd one day turn down a job like Tennessee's, but his loyalty to his "great" job ultimately made him pass it up. Jurich said Vols counterpart Hart called him and asked for permission to speak with Strong last week and added that Tennessee "followed unbelievable protocol" in the process.
Strong said Tennessee made its offer to him Tuesday.
"Was I nervous? Are you nuts? Of course I was nervous," Jurich said. "I certainly wouldn't have blamed him. I don't think anybody could have blamed him to take that job."
Strong's denial was the second one Tennessee got Wednesday, as Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy reportedly turned down a Tennessee offer in favor of staying with the Cowboys, where he's been a player, assistant or head coach for all but five years since 1986.
Though no official word ever came from Oklahoma State, Gundy, while at an event Thursday night for the Heart of Dallas Bowl, told the Dallas Morning News he "absolutely" plans to be the Cowboys' coach next season, his ninth with the program.
"The only thing I'm going to say is they haven't gone as deep as what people say," he said of other schools' pursuits. "In our profession, if you do good, people are going to contact you. If you don't, you're going to get fired."
Gundy also characterized the relationship between him and OSU AD Mike Holder as "a lot better than what people say," though he admitted the two "don't agree on everything."
Though there's only been a no-comment Wednesday statement, North Carolina has given no official word from Larry Fedora, who's been linked to Tennessee's opening. It's unlikely he'd leave the Tar Heels after one season, and he's told recruits he's not leaving. There were conflicting reports as to whether Fedora met with Tennessee officials while in New York City on Tuesday.
Throw in the early-week decision by Jimbo Fisher, who joined Florida State's staff in 2007 while Hart was athletic director there, to remain with the Seminoles amid speculation linking him to openings at Auburn and Tennessee, and the Vols' search appeared to reach a point where its direction was unclear.
Myriad names were linked to the Tennessee opening throughout the day Thursday, the list including Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Hart said nearly three weeks ago that he wanted head coaching experience and integrity, but he could have changed his search parameters.
Yet it was Jones' name that emerged by Thursday's end. The Michigan native signed a contract extension at Cincinnati last January. His 2012 salary, according to USA Today, is $1,769,648, and Jones would owe the university $1.4 million if he takes another job by Jan. 1.