Hargis: Jon Gruden's name only one creating unified buzz for UT

photo ESPN NFL analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden is the favorite of many University of Tennessee fans to become the Volunteers' new coach.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Like Michael Keaton's classic 1980s movie character "Beetlejuice," there is one name on the list of University of Tennessee football coaching candidates that very few journalists want to say aloud.

The idea of simply saying Jon Gruden's name, and the fear of looking foolish if he isn't the choice, prevents many in the mainstream media from even mentioning him.

But when you consider the other names being mentioned as likely candidates -- Miami's Al Golden, Louisville's Charlie Strong, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, etc. -- none create the immediate buzz among boosters, general fans, current players or recruits that Gruden does.

Not only can Gruden's name unite and excite the entire fan base, but it can change the Volunteers' recruiting culture. Tennessee has slipped behind many SEC opponents to the point that it now is seen as a second-tier program by the top high school recruits across the Volunteer State and in the nation.

According to many of the state's top prospects who were in Murfreesboro for the BlueCross Bowl news conference, the Mr. Football awards or both Monday, Gruden is the only true coaching rock star who could make them listen to a UT sales pitch.

"I didn't have much of a relationship with Coach [Derek] Dooley or his staff," said Beech junior running back Jalen Hurd, who won the Class AAA Mr. Football award. "Who UT gets as its coach will help me decide how interested I am in them. If they were to get a guy like Jon Gruden, that would definitely be a factor for me. He's somebody you know has coached at the highest level and knows what it takes to win and to get you to that level. If he was their coach, that would be huge for me and I'd say for a lot of other recruits in the state, too."

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Hurd will be the consensus No. 1 prospect in the state next year. Despite missing two games with a shoulder injury, he has rushed for 2,944 yards this season -- just 124 short of the state's single-season record going into the Class 5A state-title game. He visited Ohio State last weekend and already has offers from every SEC program.

"Tennessee can't sell their past to guys my age," Hurd added. "It's been so long since they were really good, like five or six years ago, that guys my age were too young to remember that. We only know what they've been in the last few years, and they've struggled. They need somebody to sell the future, make us want to be a part of a quick turnaround to being competitive at the highest level."

A.J. Long is a 6-foot, 175-pound quarterback who transferred to Friendship Christian after an all-state sophomore season in Pennsylvania. He has led the Commanders back to the 2A title game this weekend. He has thrown for more than 2,400 yards and rushed for more than 600 and has offers from UCLA, Arizona and Syracuse. He projects to play defensive back in college.

"I don't have Tennessee on my list right now, but if the rumors are true and they get Jon Gruden to coach, that would be a very, very big factor in where I would want to go play," Long said with a smile. "I wouldn't care what position he told me he wanted me to play. With his experience in the NFL I would just trust whatever he said and work to get on the field."

UT has commitments from five in-state prospects who are listed on this year's Rivals.com Top 25 list, while 14 have committed to other programs.

Ensworth's Corn Elder is one of the most accomplished athletes in state history. A three-time Mr. Football finalist, who won his second straight award Monday, Elder also has been a Mr. Basketball finalist twice and state basketball tournament MVP. With him leading the way, the Tigers have won football and basketball state titles each of the last two years and are back in the Division II-AA football final this week.

Elder admitted Monday he likely would play football in college, saying his list of finalists includes UCLA, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss and Miami. Tennessee under Dooley never has been a consideration for him. Similarly, Brentwood Academy defensive back and receiver Jalen Ramsey, the state's No. 1 prospect this season and a Southern Cal commitment, said he never felt a desire to play for Dooley but would listen if it were Gruden making the pitch.

And Memphis Whitehaven, which will play perennial power Maryville in Saturday's Class 6A final, has six players ranked in Rivals' top 25 in-state prospects. Three have committed to SEC programs and while the other three are uncommitted, they agreed that UT was never even in their top five choices while Dooley was coach.

"I thought Coach Dooley came across as kind of stuck-up, like arrogant, when we talked to him," said Whitehaven running back Mark Dodson, a Mr. Football finalist who has more than 2,900 rushing yards this season and committed to Ole Miss.

Added teammate Darrius Sims, a defensive back and Vanderbilt commitment: "I went to UT when they asked me to come for a visit, but by then I had already committed to Vandy and it was kind of just awkward. They started contacting me real late in the process and didn't seem to know much about me, so we never really connected. Whoever their new coach is has a lot of ground to make up with a lot of guys."

And with the dead period rapidly approaching -- college coaches cannot contact high school prospects from Dec. 17 to Jan. 4 -- the clock is running short on the time needed to begin cultivating relationships with the type recruits who can help bring the Vols out of the mire they've trudged through the last five seasons.

"Whoever comes in will have their work cut out for them repairing and building a lot of bridges in the state with high school coaches and recruits," said Evangelical Christian School coach Geoff Walters, whose team plays for the Division II-A state title this week.

Walters' team also had two Mr. Football finalists, including linebacker Walker Jones, an Alabama commitment and younger brother of Crimson Tide All-America lineman Barrett Jones. "UT is still the predominant program in the state, but it's not by as wide a margin as it used to be.

"They need somebody to sell a vision of the future and to quickly repair a lot of damage that's happened under the last two staffs they've had. They need a name that's going to immediately grab a lot of attention."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.