Tennessee is in the market for a new head coach after it parted ways with Butch Jones.
Athletic Director John Currie has started his search for his first football coaching hire at UT.
While speculation runs rampant, here are five candidates Vol fans can dream on in the early part of the search.
1. Les Miles (Former LSU coach)
Why he’s a fit: Athletic Director John Currie ideally would pick a candidate with head coaching experience at a Power 5 school, a history of success, and a championship pedigree. Miles checks all those boxes, having won the national championship at Louisiana State in 2007 and two SEC titles.
Miles compiled a 114-34 record in 11-plus seasons at LSU. Under his leadership, the Tigers won 69 percent of their games in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Miles also mentored two of the best offense-minded coaches in the game right now; both Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher served as offensive coordinators under Miles.
Miles played offensive line at Michigan, and cut his teeth in the collegiate coaching ranks by developing o-lineman at his alma mater and Colorado. He even coached tight ends in the professional ranks for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. If he were to take the UT job, he would inherit an offensive line that boasts the likes of Trey Smith, Drew Richmond, and LaTrell Bumphus, among others.
Off the field, Miles has a charismatic personality, from his Twitter timeline to his appearances on television as an analyst. He was heavily involved in Baton Rouge’s churches and describes himself as a devout Christian. Knoxville residents would likely be enamored with him.
Why it wouldn’t work: The 63-year-old Miles finished his tenure at LSU with three lackluster seasons, leading to his firing in the middle of the 2016 season.
Miles has been criticized for poor in-game clock management – which led to a loss to Auburn in his final game as coach – and his unconventional play calls that sometimes did not pay off for the Tigers.
His legacy at LSU is marred by the emergence of former Tigers coach Nick Saban at Alabama. LSU failed to catch up to its division rival in the final years of Miles’ tenure. UT administrators likely have taken note and wondered whether Miles can restore Tennessee to its status as an elite program.
2. Chip Kelly, Former Oregon Ducks coach (also, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers)
Why he’s a fit: Kelly led the Pac-12’s Oregon Ducks to its best stretch in program history from 2009-2012. He left with a 46-7 record (33-3 in conference play).
He was an appearance in the national championship game under his belt, with three conference titles under his belt. He also posted a 26-21 record at the helm of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
Coach Kelly mentored Mark Helfrich, who succeeded him as Oregon’s head coach and was linked to Tennessee’s offensive coordinator vacancy prior to 2016’s Music City Bowl. Central Florida’s Scott Frost, who some have pegged as an outside candidate for the Tennessee job, served as wide receivers coach under Kelly.
Kelly keeps quiet about his life outside of football, but the few stories out there paint him as a generous, under-the-radar personality.
Why it wouldn’t work: Kelly stepped aside from coaching after a poor season in San Francisco, where the 49ers finished 2016 with a 2-14 record.
Kelly notoriously has a disdain for recruiting, which could be problematic if Tennessee were to suddenly lose commits and key players to its team in the wake of Jones’ departure.
Even more troubling is the show-cause penalty the NCAA gave Kelly as he was leaving the Oregon program. Tennessee may not want to inherit any of the baggage that comes with it.
3. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Why he’s a fit: One of college football’s rising stars, the 36-year-old Fleck skyrocketed among the coaching ranks for his work at Western Michigan. Fleck led the Broncos to an undefeated regular season in 2016 and their first Cotton Bowl Classic appearance, finishing 13-1 and No. 15 in the AP Poll. A team from the Mid-American Conference, ranked 15th in the nation. That’s incredible.
He cultivated interest nationwide in his program at WMU for his charisma, in part due to his “Row The Boat” mantra. He and his ex-wife came up with the saying as part of their grieving process after they lost their son, Colt, shortly after birth. Fleck is also mainly responsible for the Broncos’ track record of community service, successful recruiting, and re-energized program.
Fleck was one of the most highly sought-after coaches last offseason. He accepted the job at Minnesota, where he’s started the season 5-5.
If you’re worried Fleck wouldn’t leave Minnesota after one season, think again. He took the offensive coordinator job at Northern Illinois in 2012, only to leave a day later to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ wide receivers coach.
Why it wouldn’t work: Still, it’s unlikely Fleck gives Minnesota the Lane Kiffin treatment and stops rowing their boat after a year.
While he has the makings of a potential elite coach, there’s no telling whether Fleck can build a consistent winner at a Power 5 school.
He figures to be a name tossed around on the coaching carousel this offseason if Minnesota finishes 2017 well. Whether John Currie would risk his first football coaching hire on someone who has never coached in the SEC remains to be seen.
4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Why he’s a fit: Credit Mullen with doing something none of his predecessors could do in Starkville; competing annually in a stacked SEC West.
In fact, the 45-year-old Mullen took Mississippi State as high as No. 1 in the nation in 2014, taking down three teams ranked in the Top 10 and finishing the season 10-2.
Mullen is something of a quarterback whisperer, having developed budding Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott and turning Nick Fitzgerald into a wunderkind in 2017.
He may have peaked at Mississippi State. If he wants to compete at the next level and aim for championships, his best bet is to take the reins at Tennessee.
Mullen’s 68-45 record won’t inspire a ton of confidence in Vol fans, but consider the strength of schedule the Bulldogs have had, and how successful Mullen has been in spite of it. Mullen has brought a winning culture to a school that really didn’t ever know what that meant.
Mullen’s .601 winning percentage is second-highest among those who have coached more than 50 games in Mississippi State history. He knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity, something the next coach in Knoxville definitely needs.
Why it wouldn’t work: Mullen has all the job security in the world at Mississippi State due to the amount of success he’s brought to the program. He’s under contract through 2021; the administration won’t turn him away, barring some disastrous results.
There’s also no reason to believe Mullen would want to leave Starkville. He’s been linked to the head coaching positions at Oregon, Miami, and Florida in recent years. If he didn’t want those jobs, why would he put his hat in the ring for the Tennessee gig?
5. Tee Martin, Southern California (Offensive Coordinator)
Why he’s a fit: Every Tennessee fan has dreamed of this scenario at some point: national championship-winning quarterback Tee Martin returns to Rocky Top as head coach, winning another national championship and ending the program’s 20-some year title drought.
Martin wants to come home. He wouldn’t turn down the Tennessee job if Currie offered it to him.
He did turn down the wide receivers coach job at Tennessee when Butch Jones first came to town, but can you blame him?
And his stock as a potential head coach as risen, thanks in part to USC’s 9-2 record.
The second-year offensive coordinator calls the plays for an elite, nationally-ranked program, and has developed a Heisman-worthy quarterback in Sam Darnold.
Some team will take a risk on Martin, who has no experience as a head coach in the NCAA. Tennessee would have to take a leap of faith on its former star. But the program found a gem in an offensive coordinator once in Phillip Fulmer; why not take a chance on the quarterback he mentored?
And, as we all know, UT has great success with head coaching hires from Southern Cal.
Why it wouldn’t work: “High-risk, high-reward” comes to mind when projecting Martin on Rocky Top. There would almost certainly be bumps and bruises along the road.
And fans’ patience would wear thin if Martin takes too long learning how to coach in the SEC.
Reports have also suggested Martin would hesitate to leave USC, due to his families ties to Los Angeles.
Other coaches considered for this list: Mike Leach (Washington State), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Jeremy Pruitt (Defensive coordinator, Alabama), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)