It's over. At least Russ Huesman's beautifully executed eight-year run of rebuilding the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football program is over.
But it's also just beginning. A new coach. A new philosophy. Both the anticipation and angst that comes with any unexpected change.
So what should we expect from UTC athletic director David Blackburn as he begins his search to replace Huesman, who took the University of Richmond job Wednesday, returning to the program he once helped guide to the 2008 Football Championship Subdivision title as the Spiders' defensive coordinator?
Does Blackburn go young and unproven, as he's twice so successfully done with men's basketball coach hires Will Wade and Matt McCall? Or does he choose a proven winner on the order of Jim Foster, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame before he ever coached a UTC game?
Big splash or gently expanding ripple? Will this hire make loud headlines or quiet headway against the Jacksonville States and North Dakota States of the FCS world? Or could Blackburn conceivably accomplish both?
If you believe the chatter coming from athletic department offices inside McKenzie Arena, we should have an answer soon. Wrote one department employee on Wednesday: "There is no timetable on the search, but I would expect it to go quickly."
You can read two or three things into that, whether accurate or not. One, Blackburn wants a football coach in place before he might be moving on himself to become the University of Tennessee at Knoxville AD. Two, a lot of very qualified candidates are already blowing up Blackburn's cellphone hoping for an interview. Three, like all good ADs, Blackburn has long had a short list of guys he's interested in who would be more than interested in replacing Huesman.
It could even be all three.
But would one be better than the others?
For instance, if former UT coach Phillip Fulmer — who pretty much gave Blackburn his start in college athletics — wanted to give that coaching thing a try again, could the Mocs possibly say no to someone who has won a national championship at the highest level of college football and more than 70 percent of his games?
Beyond that, what if Fulmer was hired as football coach just before Blackburn returned to his UT roots as the Big Orange AD? Can anyone think of anyone who would have more clout or be a better fundraiser than Fulmer as an AD?
Yes, there might be some legislative headaches. But the guy knows every multimillionaire in the state who bleeds orange, and they might be only too happy to help the ol' ball coach raise a few million dollars for a Mocs athletic department that desperately needs $10 million or so to build the kind of athletic complex it takes to attract top-flight athletes these days.
Or as Blackburn said earlier this week of the overwhelming need for such a building at UTC: "We need something we can recruit to. It's day-to-day foot traffic that student-athletes look at. Where do they lift weights? Where do they eat? Where do they meet? When that's attained, it will take us to a whole new level."
Huesman's formula of hard work, good people and attention to detail took the program to a level it had never previously known, reaching the playoffs for three straight years and winning at least one game each time.
But let's say a proven coach such as Fulmer, or Charleston Southern's Jamey Chadwell, UT-Martin's Jason Simpson (a former UTC offensive coordinator) or Mercer's Bobby Lamb doesn't want the job.
Do you turn to a longtime FBS assistant, someone such as Florida State co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders — the former Volunteers assistant whose wife Cathy grew up just up the road in Cleveland — or current UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who has no buyout clause? What about Miami's Thomas Brown, the former Georgia star? Or Georgia Tech defensive assistant Andy McCollum, the former Middle Tennessee State coach?
A case for McCollum: After spending the past seven years on the Flats defending Tech's option offense each day in practice, he'd be a perfect hire to slow down the similar attacks of The Citadel and Wofford, both winners against the Mocs this season.
Then there are the young guns — smart guys on the way up who might not be the perfect fit next year, but might grow into the Next Big Thing by a third season on the job. Let's put two former UTC assistants — Austin Peay coach Will Healy and Tennessee Tech coach Marcus Satterfield — in that category, as well as current Mocs aides Jeff Durden and Rusty Wright.
Healy and Satterfield just wrapped up their first seasons in the Ohio Valley Conference, though Healy has yet to taste victory. But his Governors were leading 13-0 at Kentucky one week before the Wildcats traveled to Louisville and shocked the then-No. 11 Cardinals.
Healy also has proven to be a sensational recruiter for the Peay by snaring a verbal commitment from talented Brentwood Academy quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall. Given his similar grand work as a UTC assistant, his familiarity with his hometown and his youthful energy (he's 30), it might be wise to let him grow into the job rather than watch him soon build a program at Peay capable of mastering the Mocs.
This isn't to say everyone under consideration is ready for this job. It isn't to say that Blackburn can't make a mistake among these candidates or whomever else he might ultimately hire.
But having hit the jackpot on three straight high-profile UTC hires who came wrapped as both proven winners and unproven potential winners, you have to like Blackburn's odds to hit for the cycle when he introduces Huesman's replacement.
And if Blackburn can soon make good on his desire to build that new athletic complex, the football program might not just keep making the playoffs, it might finally hoist the trophy for the coach who follows Russ the Rebuilder.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
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