I want to believe Peyton Manning planned the whole thing.
On Saturday night, when the COO at Calhoun’s admitted that some of the workers at its flagship restaurant on the Tennessee River had made a mistake in facial recognition and told everyone that Jon Gruden had eaten dinner there with Manning when Gruden was in fact in Seattle, I imagined Manning as the mastermind behind the ruse and couldn’t stop smiling.
You can see it, can’t you? Manning reading up on all the Grumors saturating the Twittersphere and every message board known to Vol Nation, remembering he has that one friend who has Gruden’s haircut and kinda sorta looks like the former Super Bowl winner if you don’t look too close, and then flashing that mischievous grin you’ve seen in commercials.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision Manning selling this fake like a phantom handoff on play action. Arranging his table at the restaurant that is among the centers of Knoxville civic life so anyone nosey enough to take a picture but not nosey enough to come around the other side of the table would get the back — and only the back — of his friend’s head. Telling his friend to make sure as many people as possible would see his hair and not his face. From there, it’s even easier to imagine Manning arriving at Neyland for the Vols’ game against LSU and for the 1997 SEC championship team’s reunion, watching his phone blow up and guffawing to himself about just how many people he had sent into scramble mode.
This might not be how it happened at all, but I like to imagine it this way, because if Knoxville and the Tennessee fan base are going to be subjected to and engage in all of this chaos, someone might as well get a laugh out of it, and that someone might as well be the UT football program’s favorite son.
For all intents and purposes, Tennessee’s 2017 football season ended on Saturday night, if it hadn’t ended already with the season’s first six losses and the firing of Butch Jones. The Vols’ 30-10 loss to LSU assures, once and for all, that they won’t get to six wins this season. Tennessee’s 972 Academic Progress Rate score, while solid, almost certainly isn’t going to be enough to secure the Vols a bowl spot leftover for academically inclined sub. 500 finishers, even if they do beat Vanderbilt, which is by no means a sure thing. And while a win over Tennessee would give the Commodores a chance to salve the wounds of a brutal season, beating Vandy wouldn’t have nearly the same healing effect in Knoxville.
So, for a while, at least, “in flux” will be the state of the program, which will mean ignorance of and an attempt to forget the current state of the product on the field. It will mean every reporter in town — God bless them — will be chasing shadows and whispers, updating FlightAware and occasionally staking out McGhee Tyson Airport.
And there will be “sightings” like the one that happened on Saturday night. So many sightings.
Over the next week until the end of the regular season, all of the attention will be focused on Gruden, which means that one way or another there will at least be closure on that score at the end of this. If Tennessee doesn’t want him now because he’s been out of coaching and particularly college coaching for too long, the Vols won’t be any more interested if they have to make another hire five years from now. And if Gruden doesn’t want the job now, it’s not going to become any more attractive with time, either. This will be the last of the “will-he-or-won’t-he?” stage. The Grumors won’t end until a hire is made — and in the past tense, they will continue for eternity if he doesn’t take the job — but at least when this is over, there will be no more to chase.
If it ultimately isn’t Gruden, there is a humongous list of other possibilities. Dan Mullen, Chip Kelly, Mike Norvell, Matt Campbell, Scott Frost and David Cutcliffe are just some of the many, and debate will rage about who makes the most sense and why.
The early signing period gives the Vols reason to hurry, but they also have reason not to rush. Tennessee has to get this hire right, and it should enter this search believing it is offering one of the most attractive coaching jobs in college football. That’s not to say it should be ridiculously picky and settle for nothing less than Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, but it should understand that it has a lot to offer, and not just in terms of tradition and fan base.
As I said in this space last week, I wouldn’t make a declarative statement about whether Jones was good for Tennessee without definitive answers to a number of uncomfortable questions. But I do think it’s fair to say that from a pure football perspective, he will leave his successor with a better program than the one he inherited. This season was ultimately star-crossed on so many levels, but in every position unit, the next coach will have talent to work with and build around.
The offensive line is currently a complete wreck due to injury, but the Vols have All-America-caliber talent to build around in Trey Smith. John Kelly could conceivably leave early for the NFL, but Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Carlin Fils-aime leave the Vols with a solid stable if he goes. Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson lead a group of young receivers who are just starting to get things figured out on the perimeter, and Jauan Jennings will be back to add some veteran savvy and attitude to that group.
The quarterback situation has to be better a year from now. Quentin Dormady will presumably be healthy. Jarrett Guarantano will presumably spend the offseason figuring out how to read and feel pressure. And if none of those things happen, Will McBride will also have another year to turn himself into a more viable option.
The defense will lose four starters, possibly five if Rashaan Gaulden decides to come out early, but its leading tacklers (Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior) are sophomores, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. could return to middle linebacker and be a game changer. The next coach will inherit a defensive line mostly filled with players many would consider underachievers, at least in comparison to their recruiting rankings, but they are pieces of clay still worth molding.
Of course, there will be much silliness and absurdity between now and the time that next coach is determined. Try your best to get a laugh out of it.