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Jon Gruden
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Urban legend?

Or legend of the fall?

When it comes to University of Tennessee football, is Monday Night Football analyst and former UT graduate assistant Jon Gruden the former or the latter?

The idea of Gruden returning to Rocky Top in a coaching capacity for the first time in more than 30 years seems to be the dream conclusion of almost every Volniac to the search to replace just-fired Butch Jones. Actually, it was probably the dream when Lane Kiffin was hired, as well as the dream before Derek Dooley and Jones were hired.

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Jon Gruden (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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After all, beyond that previous brief stint wearing orange, Gruden also owns something even Alabama's Nick Saban has thus far failed to acquire: a Super Bowl ring.

So what if he hasn't been employed in any capacity as a college coach since 1989 at Pacific? So what if a lot of pro football folks always will claim his 2003 Super Bowl crown should have belonged to Tony Dungy, who built that extraordinary Tampa Bay defense before Gruden was named the coach in a bizarre trade with the Oakland Raiders, whom he'd coached the previous season?

Whatever the reason — desperation, inspiration, infatuation — the fans want Gruden and UT athletic director John Currie probably needs Gruden to mollify a Big Orange Nation that is coming apart at the seams over enduring a 19th straight season without an SEC championship and a 10th straight autumn without an SEC East crown.

And if you believe Scott Roussel of FootballScoop.com, Gruden already has said no, that he has no interest in the UT gig, and probably any other coaching opportunity.

But is that really the end of it? Could no interest be switched to much interest for enough George Washingtons? And if not, is it not time to finally quit pining for this guy, who almost seems to taunt the UT fan base each time this job comes open, though never seems to be overly sincere about his intentions. For someone whose wife was a UT cheerleader and whose son is currently a UT student, even allowing hope to develop briefly seems cruel and unusual punishment of the highest narcissistic order.

Yet if he were sincere, if only for a moment or two, what might a Gruden coaching staff look like? Would it be filled with longtime NFL assistants? Might he reach out to former UT players, such as current Southern Cal assistant Tee Martin, who was the Big Orange quarterback during that 1998 national championship season?

Moreover, could he convince Peyton Manning to take a more concrete role in the program? Or might a Gruden hire by UT open the door for Manning to to take Gruden's spot in the MNF booth, as some UT fans have suggested?

(And might that be a win-win for both the Vols and MNF?)

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For argument's sake, let's go with the assumption that FootballScoop.com is right about Gruden having no interest in the Vols. What then? Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who hasn't felt much love lately from Seminoles Nation? Former UT assistant and current Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who certainly would run a model program both on and off the field but never has quite looked like a top-level coach when it comes to wins and losses?

Personally, if Currie is remotely considering anyone but a current head coach, I'd encourage him to reach out to Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who seems to have a disciplined, no-nonsense approach to his craft, having helped place the Tigers in the past two national championship games, including last season's national title.

That said, Currie should probably look for a proven head coach who has meaningful experience with a top-shelf Power Five program as a coordinator at the very least.

Jones wasn't an awful hire. Jones didn't do an awful job. In fact, off the court he might have been the best coach in the SEC when it came to improving his program's academics and off-field behavior.

But despite a quite respectable resume at Cincinnati, he often seemed overmatched on game day, especially any time a bit of coaching genius was needed to pull off an unexpected win. Look back over his five seasons and there were far more head-scratching losses (Florida twice in the Swamp, Kentucky this year, at South Carolina and Vanderbilt last year, Oklahoma inside Neyland) than head-turning triumphs (the Hail Mary at Georgia last season, the Miracle inside Mercedes-Benz against Georgia Tech this season).

But if Gruden really chooses to sit this one out, the best news for whoever ultimately replaces Jones is that the next coach never should have the pipe dream of Gruden hanging over him.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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