Vol Nation Comes Back to Earth: Straight Down from Space without a Parachute
Grudenmania crashed and burned on Friday. The only thing that remains are ashes that still smolder.
It didn’t begin this past week. It began years ago, this infatuation with an unobtainable shiny object in the sky.
Nonetheless, this unquenchable thirst for Jon Gruden as head dude of Tennessee Vols football reached a crescendo to the point of ear-splitting thunder this past week. And within 24 hours of having done so, it all came crashing down to the lower depths of Fan Hell.
Early this past week, there was a report out of Memphis TV station WREG-TV that Tennessee had offered the job to Gruden — a “contract in hand” — but it didn’t stop with a base salary and potential bonus money. The offer reportedly also included a partial ownership stake in the Cleveland Browns, courtesy of boosters.
Notwithstanding the likely legal hang-ups with such a proposed deal, the TV outlet ran with the ‘story’ anyway. Forget the fact that current NCAA rules would prohibit such nonsense (unless the ownership stake was first donated to the University of Tennessee). Of course, I’m sure there is an element of the Tennessee boosters who think they might be able to do an end-around such particulars.
Soon thereafter, Gruden actually made an appearance addressing all of this Tennessee hysteria (he’s been silent up to this point). On the Mike and Mike program broadcast by ESPN radio, the Monday Night Football broadcaster flatly denied the report on the rumors. But, he didn’t entirely disparage the idea that he had been contemplating such a move, or that there had been contact.
That was enough to keep Grudenmania fueled for a while longer, despite some additional denials of this and other stories involving a link between Gruden and Tennessee.
The Browns released a statement denying the TV report, saying that Owner Jimmy Haslam was not involved in the head coach search and that there was no ownership deal involving Gruden.
Knoxville radio broadcaster Jimmy Hyams also got into the act when on his Wednesday afternoon program, Hyams reported that a meeting between Gruden and Tennessee had in fact been scheduled, but was subsequently cancelled by Gruden. He further reported that “Contrary to reports, UT has not offered a contract to Gruden nor does Gruden have a contract in hand.”
The Grudenites immediately pounced on this. Since a meeting had been arranged, stories began to appear saying that the money was good but that control and autonomy were issues that couldn’t be resolved.
You could see it coming: a war between rival fan factions. Or, perhaps more accurately, a war between fans and the administration. There is a not-so-insignificant faction of the Vol Nation that want Gruden at all costs — money, control over football operations, you name it. And if their object of infatuation is not signed, sealed, and delivered to them with appropriate pomp and circumstance, there would be hell to pay. And, Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart as well as UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek would be the object of their vengeance.
So, the fact that final details over salary perceived as minor could not be agreed upon would be viewed by the Grudenites as a complete failure of Dave Hart in his search to replace the recently-fired Derek Dooley. It would constitute an orange treason, punishable by firing, and banishment back to Alabama. It would represent insubordination on the part of Dave Hart by his unwillingness to placate those that were surely in charge of this whole coaching search — the mega-boosters and their financial backing. After all, Hart indicated earlier that money would not be an issue with such an important hire.
But all of this paled in comparison to what was to come.
Wes Rucker, formerly a writer with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and now a senior writer with govols247.com, reported on Thursday afternoon/evening that talks between Tennessee and Jon Gruden were dead.
But late Thursday night, for Friday morning print publication, an article was published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The article was listed as being authored by Stephen Hargis whose main beat is not UT football but high school sports in the tri-state area.
The article reported that “sources close to the process” indicated that Gruden has been extended an offer, and that Gruden’s decision likely would hinge on the money that UT would be willing to pay for his potential staff. A separate source was said to have reported to the paper that Gruden said the two sides weren’t close enough on money for his staff — “He’s very interested, but if they don’t come up with what they need for the assistants, he’s told them he’s out.”
It was immediately curious to me and some others that the report was written by Hargis, not Patrick Brown, the Tennessee beat writer for the Chattanooga paper.
The Grudenites went on the offensive. The Hargis story was the ‘definitive proof’ that Gruden wanted to be the savior of Tennessee Volunteer. But there were obstacles to overcome for their chosen one to wear the headset on the sideline of Neyland Stadium. There were widespread insinuations that there were sources within the UT administration that were leaking stories to the Knoxville media — both Hyams and Rucker in particular — to support a Dave Hart campaign not to hire Gruden in spite of the wishes of the fan base and boosters.
But criticisms of the Hargis article rained down from every corner of the ring.
A source that spoke to the Knoxville News Sentinel directly disputed the Chattanooga report. That source indicated Tennessee had in fact reached out to Gruden last week, but after discussing matters with his family, Gruden declined to pursue the job. The KNS further reported that the source indicated that “no financial figures were discussed and no contract was offered.”
Rucker issued a tweet responding to the Hargis article: “I feel really good about what we reported… and the sources that it came from, and how fresh the information was.” When baited by a follower on Twitter who wrote “How about your sources being incompetent”, Rucker replied “My sources speak with Gruden.”
Hyams joined in on Twitter: “Jon Gruden is out as UT candidate, Informed UT recently after phone talks last week. UT never offered contract source said.”
Volquest.com, the organization headed by Brent Hubbs, reported that Gruden was never presented with any contract or financial details to become the Volunteers’ next football coach.
The national media got into the act. Chris Low who covers SEC football for ESPN reported that contrary to the Hargis report, there was no UT offer to Gruden, the two sides had talked during the previous week, but got no further than that. Other members of the national media joined in for criticizing the Hargis report.
And, Gruden’s agent, Bob LaMonte of Reno, reported that all of this speculation about Gruden coming to Tennessee “is just a fantasy world.” LaMonte also stated that he had been contacted by Dave Hart who said “there had been a lot of rumors and he just wanted to clear the air.” LaMonte added that there had been no offers or discussions of money, and no discussions at all that involved him.
Backed into a corner, Hargis chose his own method of self-immolation: he appeared on Tony Basilio’s radio program Friday morning on Tennessee Sports Radio. You can find the audio I’m sure on Basilio’s web page. It is entertaining and sad at the same time.
Hargis understandably defended his story. I suppose any credible journalist would. But it was his words and the way that he delivered them that destroyed any credibility that Hargis had left after receiving no support from any other media outlets. Goaded on by Basilio, Hargis was angry, defensive, and vulgar. He basically called out all of the Knoxville media and told them to get off their asses and do some reporting. Hargis later appeared on Sports 180, a program on Knoxville’s WNML, early Friday afternoon. He basically said the same things, with a somewhat subdued tone of defensiveness.
When asked who his source was, he indicated that it was not a booster or anybody with the University. Then, who was it? Where was any shred of credibility?
Stephen Hargis successfully made the entire story all about himself. All of a sudden, it was a high school sports reporter from Chattanooga against Volquest, the Knoxville News Sentinel, ESPN, and others.
And all of a sudden, the Grudenites had little to hold onto.
Yes, Friday was the death of the Grudenites. For now at least. Smoldering embers remain.
But their fall from the near-heights of ecstasy on Friday was of epic proportions.
It all reminded me of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump from space.
Except without the parachute.