KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Phillip Fulmer understands what it takes to win at Tennessee in the modern era as much as anyone, and he shared his thoughts on the Vols coaching search.
“As we look forward, we need a great coach, a great leader and a great example for our young people,” Fulmer said recently at the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio. “That’s how you do it here.”
Fulmer has never been one to talk out of turn, but he stressed that character counts, echoing the words of athletic director John Currie at the press conference announcing Butch Jones’ firing on Nov. 12.
Some have speculated that former Vols coach Lane Kiffin could be in the running, his image apparently being repaired with each victory at Florida Atlantic. But it’s a safe bet neither Currie nor Fulmer would sign off on that plan.
Currie has been urged to consider hiring retired NFL coach Jon Gruden, who has worked in the Monday Night Football booth since 2009. But for a couple days at least, while in the Bahamas with the men’s basketball team, Currie will have some peace to sort through the list of candidates he has reached out to or vetted.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen are the two coaches who most closely fit the description of what Currie desires, proven winners who have been a part of championship programs.
But Fisher is likely to wait to see if Texas A&M makes him an offer before making any decisions, and a source with knowledge of the search says Tennessee might not want to pay what it would take to land the man who coached FSU to the 2013 national championship.
Fisher might ultimately end up using the interest from Tennessee and Texas A&M as leverage. There is speculation that he’s under pressure to fire some Seminoles assistant coaches.
Mullen could be attainable, but there’s some question as to if he would want the Tennessee job. The expectations for the Vols’ head coach don’t match the reality of just one top-10 finish — following the 2001 season — since the turn of the century. Mullen has had one winning conference record in his first eight seasons in Starkville, but that has been enough to provide him with job security.
Indeed, Mullen had a higher salary coaching Mississippi State this season ($4.5 million) after going 15-11 over the 2015 and 2016 seasons than Jones had with the Vols after going 18-8 during the same span ($4.1 million), according to the USA Today coaching salary database.
When former Tennessee players were back in Knoxville last weekend as the 1997 SEC Championship team was honored, Mullen was the name they circulated as the most likely hire.
Another source familiar with the search said Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris are other coaches in whom Currie has shown interest, along with Memphis coach Mike Norvell.
Duke’s David Cutcliffe, a former longtime Tennessee assistant, might still be a factor as well. Cutcliffe is a proven commodity who would have a better understanding of the Vols’ position than any other candidate, and he’s obviously well known among Tennessee’s most powerful boosters, including Peyton Manning.
If Currie can’t land an established Power 5 coach, and major boosters balk at less-proven candidates, Cutcliffe could prove to be the right fit.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has the sort of experience and temperament to handle the Tennessee job, but there hasn’t been the same buzz about Gundy as in 2012, when he was among the coaches Tennessee approached after Derek Dooley was fired.