David Blackburn: Jon Gruden a viable option to coach Vols, would listen to offer

Sources say Gruden has reached out to assistants to potentially join his staff

David Blackburn, former senior associate athletic director at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, talks about his years of experience working in the UT system in this file photo.

There are few people who care more about the University of Tennessee and its football program than David Blackburn.

There are even fewer who know Jon Gruden as well as Blackburn does.

Blackburn, former UTC athletic director, and Gruden developed a relationship while both worked with the Tennessee football program - Gruden as a graduate assistant and Blackburn as a student manager - during the 1985 season, and the two have remained friends for more than 30 years.

Gruden, an ESPN analyst and former head coach in the NFL, has been rumored to be at the top of the university's list of potential head coaches to replace Butch Jones, who was fired Sunday morning with two games remaining in his fifth season leading the Volunteers.

Blackburn said he does not think the Tennessee-Gruden courtship is over, as some have reported.

"He and I communicate from time to time," Blackburn said. "I would definitely think he's a viable option. He's a guy who loves coaching and loves Tennessee. Our history is probably the reason we get along so well. My dad was a coach in a small town, and Jon is a rural Ohio guy whose dad was a coach, so we're just two good old boys who like to talk football.

"I can't sit here and say he will take it if offered, but I do think he would listen. Tennessee is like home for him, and he'd be a great fit."

After graduating from Tennessee in 1989, Blackburn worked in his alma mater's athletic department for 20 years, holding a number of administrative roles before being hired as athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2013. He resigned from that job in June.

During Blackburn's time at UTC, its sports teams won 13 Southern Conference regular-season championships and 10 SoCon tournament titles. In 2015-16, the Mocs won football, men's basketball and women's basketball championships, the first time in the more than 100-year history of the SoCon a member school accomplished that feat in the same school year.

"If Jon is hired, he would surround himself with an incredible staff and some guys who have a history at Tennessee and understand what makes that program so special," said Blackburn, a native of Loudon, Tenn.

photo Jon Gruden

"I'm not sure which direction they will go if it doesn't work out. There are a lot of other good candidates out there, and I know they would get a great one, but I certainly don't think anything has been decided as far as Jon not taking the job."

Multiple sources confirmed Gruden has reached out to current college assistants who have a history of either playing or coaching at Tennessee to gauge their interest in potentially joining his staff.

That list includes former All-Southeastern Conference linebacker and current Appalachian State defensive assistant Dale Jones, as well as former Vols quarterback and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who is currently the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Florida State.

One source said Gruden has spoken with Blackburn about the possibility of him being a member of the program's support staff. If so, Blackburn could help in multiple areas. Blackburn would neither confirm nor deny that report, but when asked if there would be any problems working closely with new Tennessee athletic director John Currie - Blackburn was rumored to be a candidate for that job last fall - Blackburn was quick to assure there wouldn't.

"Absolutely not. I like John and have the utmost respect for him, and I believe he will do a wonderful job," Blackburn said. "He has the best interest of the university and the athletic department in mind, and I know he will work very hard to get things headed back in the right direction."

Gruden has been linked to the Tennessee job on more than one occasion, most notably in 2012 when, shortly before the university hired Jones, the Times Free Press reported Gruden had expressed enough interest in the vacancy to begin contacting potential staff members. At the time, Gruden reached out to South Pittsburg High School coach Vic Grider about potentially joining the staff as a high school liaison to help mend recruiting fences with in-state coaches after former Vols coach Derek Dooley had alienated them.

Grider also worked as a student manager at Tennessee in the mid-1980s and was Gruden's roommate. Both assisted then-quarterbacks coach Walt Harris before Gruden moved on to become a full-time assistant at Southeast Missouri State and later joined Harris's offensive staff at the University of the Pacific. Grider and Gruden have maintained a friendship throughout the years, but Grider said he has not spoken with Gruden yet about his latest flirtation with the job.

Gruden was a guest on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" radio show Wednesday morning, and when asked if he would get back into coaching, he replied, "As you know in life, you never say never to nothing."

Blackburn cautioned that, similar to five years ago, although Gruden has expressed interest behind the scenes, that does not mean a deal will get done.

Much of the Tennessee fanbase views Gruden as the home-run hire the program needs after three failed attempts over the past decade - Lane Kiffin (2009), Dooley (2010-12) and Jones - to find a coach who could replicate the success the Vols enjoyed under Phillip Fulmer.

Gruden has not worked in the college game in 27 years, and his most notable coaching accomplishments came in the NFL. In 2003, at 39 years old, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl, doing so with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He began his broadcast career with ESPN in 2009 and is now the network's highest-paid on-air personality, making $6.5 million per year as an analyst for Monday Night Football as well as for college bowl games. He also hosts the popular series "Jon Gruden's QB Camp," which airs each year leading up to the NFL draft.

"I know he likes his lifestyle working with ESPN," Blackburn said. "He knows the amount of time and work it's going to take and the travel for recruiting. I have absolutely no doubt he would do a great job. Everybody knows to win in college, you have to be able to recruit, you have to pour yourself into the job and you have to know how to coach the game. Jon would be great at all of those.

"This is a guy who wakes up at 4 a.m., and his fire is already blazing hot to get to work. He's tireless. He's a great communicator and motivator. You can't not be fired up about the game when you're around him as a player or a coach."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.