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Mike Bajakian

KNOXVILLE -- The allure of coaching in the NFL ultimately was too much for Mike Bajakian's to pass up, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach said Friday evening in an interview with Knoxville radio station.

During a visit with WNML Radio, Bajakian explained why he left the Volunteers to become the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and reflected on his time with Tennessee and coach Butch Jones the last two seasons.

Bajakian spent three seasons with the Chicago Bears before joining Jones at Central Michigan in 2007, and Lovie Smith, his former boss in Chicago and Tampa Bay's second-year coach, offered him a chance to get back in the NFL ranks.

"It's definitely something that's always been in the back of my mind," Bajakian said. "Obviously we've had a great run and a great experience the last eight years with Coach Jones at the stops we've had. But when this opportunity came along and the opportunity to compete at the highest level, the pinnacle of the profression, with the best athletes in the world, I just had to take it.

"It's the highest level," he added. "It's the best football in the world. I think everybody wants to compete at the highest level and have that chance to be the best of the best, and obviously this affords me the opportunity to do that."

Like many coordinators and assistant coaches, Bajakian has aspirations to become a head coach, and he told WNML he believed working for Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay will improve his resume and open more doors for his career.

Of course, had the timing been a little different, Bajakian may have had the chance to become the head coach at Central Michigan, where he coached for two different stints, after that job came open on Thursday when Dan Enos resigned to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

"It was funny the way it worked," Bajakian said. "I'd accepted the job in Tampa Bay and called up Lovie Smith yesterday morning and accepted it, and an hour later, the CMU job opened up. Because of my history there, I think there was a natural connection.

"People within the administration did reach out to me, and we had a conversation, but ultimately, I just felt that Tampa was what was best for me, for my career and for my family."

Bajakian admitted it was difficult to leave Tennessee, which will return 10 starters and some promising young talent on offense in 2015.

"The players from day one bought in very quickly, and I appreciate that, even as I'm excited," he said. "The guys that I was able to talk to, I let them know that how quickly they bought in and how hard they work is just tremendous. To leave that is bittersweet to a certain extent.

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"They're going to have great success here in the future, and it's hard to leave before, frankly, I'm able to enjoy the fruits of the labor that we've been able to put in."

Now another coach will get that opportunity. A timetable for a hire remains unclear. Jones and the rest of Tennessee's staff came off the road on Friday to host some official visitors on campus, so Jones could meet with prospective replacements as early as this weekend.

Some other names to watch as the Vols look for Bajakian's successor are former Central Michigan head coach and NFL assistant Mike Debord, Alabama receivers coach and former Clemson coordinator Billy Napier, South Carolina quarterbacks coach and former Middle Tennessee State coordinator G.A. Mangus and Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg.

Debord, currently the administrator for Olympic sports at Michigan, spent five seasons in the NFL with the Bears and Seattle Seahawks after multiple college coaching stops in the Midwest, most notably as an offensive coordinator with the Wolverines when they won a share of the 1997 national championship.

A long-time offensive line coach, Debord is looking to get back into coaching after a two-year absence.

"I'm sure whoever Coach (Jones) gets is going to do a great job," Bajakian said. "Coach, he's obviously a great leader of the program, and I know he'll put a lot of thought and a lot of evaluation into it. I know Vol nation can expect that, whoever it is, it's going to be the right hire."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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