In the two weeks since the University of Tennessee fired head football coach Derek Dooley, the chatter about the next head coach among Vols fans has heavily focused on Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden.
The rumors grew into a full-blown report from Memphis television station WREG that Gruden had been offered the top job for the Vols and would also receive a stake in the Cleveland Browns, now owned by UT supporter Jimmy Haslam. Gruden denied he had been offered the job and the Browns also issued a statement saying the report was completely erroneous.
While reports by journalism outlets that Gruden has been offered a job are new, discussions among fans that Gruden might someday coach the Vols is practically a favorite pastime for UT fans. There is some substantive fuel for the Gruden obsession. He served as a graduate assistant in Knoxville in the 1980s under head coach Johnny Majors. Gruden's wife, Cindy, was a cheerleader at UT and her family still lives in the area. Earlier this year, Gruden spoke of his fondness for Tennessee when he visited Knoxville to help Derek Dooley with a football clinic.
"My wife cheered at UT when I was a GA, so we got to reunite with Coach Majors last night at dinner and just reminisce on what Tennessee's all about," said Gruden in April.
The growing rumor craze about all things Gruden has now transcended mere chatter and taken on some absurdity online.
"I've never seen anything like this with a coaching hire anywhere," said Shane Rhyne, manager of digital strategies for Ackermann PR who tracks social media. "The
whole Gruden thing has even taken on its own hash-tag. Now it is
'Grumors' on Twitter."
The drama on Twitter and various message boards reads like the script of just about any type of Hollywood movie. The tale begins as a love story with his wife in the 1980s. Then through the years Gruden transforms into a gridiron winner who NFL fans renamed "Chucky" because he resembles the character from the horror movie Child's Play. At some point this fall, the online tale of Gruden took on a bit of science fiction.
"In October there was a post on Twitter where you had this blurry 'big foot' type photo of Jon Gruden on an airplane. He's supposedly watching the UT game on his laptop or tablet and taking
notes rapidly. You can see how clearly obviously this is certainly
going to be proof Jon Gruden is coaching at UT," laughed Rhyne.
Like spectators of a mystery thriller, Rhyne said Vols fans look for any clue that Gruden might join the Vols.
"Like if he wears an orange tie. Lord help us if Gruden wears an orange tie," said Rhyne. "When Gruden was calling the Kansas City game on Monday Night Football and mentioned Eric Berry used to play at UT, it was like Twitter exploded that this was some kind of proof that he wants to be our coach."
The online grumors have also been fed by a few fraudulent documents.
"There are people who post these acceptance letters from private schools for their kids. One of my favorites is this letter that is proof positive that Mr. and Mrs. Gruden's children have been accepted to Webb School. The first sentence has about four words spelled incorrectly. I'm fairly confident no one at Webb School misspells as many words as this letter has," laughed Rhyne.
When Gruden denied he was offered the UT job or any ownership in the Browns on Wednesday, the rumors keep going like a Chucky doll that refuses to die.
"You have folks saying, 'Well he didn't say no exactly.' He just said that he had not been offered the job or that he was offered ownership in the Browns," said Rhyne.
Now the inaccurate report by WREG has become fodder for a Gruden comedy.
"There are a lot of folks having great fun with this entire report. We have posts like this one that says 'We've promised to name all of the streets in Knoxville after his family members.' Then Grumors suggests [Texas A&M quarterback] Johnny Manziel would consider a transfer to UT if Gruden is hired. Another post says Gruden has been hiding in the Body Farm," laughed Rhyne.
While much of the conversation about Gruden is tongue-in-cheek, Rhyne says the danger of the Gruden online obsession is that it sets up other candidates to be characters in a tragedy.
"I don't think it's a good idea to set ourselves up to hire a great coach who the fans are not going to like from day one because he's not Jon Gruden," said Rhyne.