KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A sign of the times in front of a fraternity house Saturday on the Tennessee campus:
“Gruden drinks for free”
Tennessee has a serious case of Grudenmania, hoping that its one-time graduate assistant turned apple-of-its-coaching-search-eye Jon Gruden will come riding over the Smokies and restore respectability to this downtrodden program.
And of course, in the process, beat Alabama.
Gruden rumors are rampant — Grumors actually — including one Saturday that Gruden was spotted at a local restaurant in advance of the LSU-Tennessee game at wind-blown Neyland Stadium.
Gruden stoked the fire himself on a Seattle radio show last week, when, unprompted, he volunteered how much he loves Tennessee’s fight song, “Rocky Top.”
Doesn’t everyone? No, not everyone. Maybe that’s an indication of how serious he is. That or Gruden is just being a huge troll.
When it comes to coaching searches, whether in college football or the NFL, Gruden isn't really a troll. He's a unicorn. THE unicorn. Has been since shortly after he got fired in Tampa Bay, after which he cheekily took a volunteer assistant offensive line coach job with a local high school there for a spell.
Still, you have to ask what made Gruden all that gosh-darned desirable, other than that Jason Statham-like action hero glare. He was 100-85 as a head coach in Oakland and Tampa Bay. He led the Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 — in his first year after leaving Oakland for Tampa, in fact – making him at the time the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl at 39. So that’s something. His teams made a combined five playoff appearances with five division titles, so that’s nice, too.
But less-lauded coaches won a single Super Bowl. I don’t see Brian Billick’s name being whipped into a fondue every time a job opens up somewhere.
The difference is you don’t hear and see Billick every Monday night on ESPN during football season. The Cult of Gruden has as much to do with the cult of personality as anything else. And, as recent history has shown, he wouldn’t be the first person to parlay TV visibility to his advantage.
Tennessee fan Sean Root, in from Nashville for the game with his daughter Maggie Grace, thinks Gruden is playing his school for a different objective.
“I think he’s going to the Colts,” said Root as he fruitlessly tried to connect with an LSU fan friend. “I think it’s just talking things up to try to get people to put out more money.”
Then Root told me he’d heard some scoop about the coaching situation. I pressed closer, fearing some TV news crew might be in the area. I didn’t figure to be reliably informed, but as the infamous character Hans Landa once said, “I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”
Root said he heard former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe (hired by Joe Alleva to be the head coach at Duke) is coming back and Tee Martin, the national championship-winning Tennessee quarterback and now offensive coordinator at Southern California, will be his heir apparent.
That’s the perfect kind of rumor, a bit outlandish but realistic enough to be plausible.
Then Root topped himself.
“I think they should bring Lane Kiffin back,” he said. “He got fired (at USC) on the tarmac, he learned from Nick Saban, and he has no fear of Saban.”
The way Kiffin has been trolling Saban on Twitter, Root may have something there.
Jim Acres, a Tennessee fan and alum from Medina, Ohio, was similarly skeptical about Gruden.
“I think it would be interesting,” he said. “But to be honest, I think he’s been out of coaching so long I don’t know whether he’s what we need.
"I’d love for them to get Jim Bob,” Acres said, referring to former Tennessee coach and current Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
What about Les Miles?
“I think Les is going to Florida,” Acres said.
Hmmm. Hadn’t heard that one.
Still, that Gruden restaurant rumor had my reporter senses on alert. Over at the K-Town Dog Pound concession stand, I asked if Gruden had been by Saturday night.
“Oh yes,” came the reply. “Three times.”
I knew it.
I then asked some young Tennessee workers who were hawking men’s basketball tickets nearby whether Gruden had purchased season tickets. They didn’t think so, but they couldn’t swear to it that Gruden hadn’t bought a suite over in Thompson-Boling Arena.
One suite? Why not two?
Until Tennessee hires a coach, either Gruden or someone else, the Grumors likely only will grow.
And why not? After all, he once killed him a bear when he was only 3.