Tennessee football and what might have been

Marvin Westwestwords

About this time three years ago, I received a heads-up message from a friend. She said she had heard that Jimmy Sexton was trying to link Dan Mullen and Tennessee.

Sexton is the super-agent, a UT graduate, who guides football coaches to multi-million-dollar jobs and keeps the spare change.

Dan Mullen

Tennessee and Florida had visible vacancies. Mullen was then coach at Mississippi State. He had worked minor miracles and topped out. He was, indeed, going somewhere for a new challenge.

Sexton did not return a call. I never knew whether that very brief but very interesting e-mail was fact or fiction but we all soon found out that Tennessee athletics director John Currie was deep in the Mullen mix.

On Nov. 25, 2017, Currie asked another agent, Clint Dowdle, to send Mullen a memorandum of understanding. That was a job offer. There was a dotted line where he could sign. Nothing came of it.

In truth, Tennessee never had a chance. On that very day, UCLA took Chip Kelly off Florida’s list of preferables. Scott Stricklin, athletics director of the Gators, former AD at Mississippi State, rebounded immediately to his friend, Mullen.

Scott should have been there all along. He and Dan had worked to mutual advantages for seven seasons in Starkville.

Mullen, 2005-2008 Florida offensive coordinator and quarterback coach during the Urban Meyer seasons of success, was more than willing, actually eager to return to Gainesville. He received instant encouragement, more than $36 million guaranteed for six years of fun ‘n games.

You know the rest of the story. Currie switched to Greg Schiano. Offended Tennessee fans and politicians had a hissy fit. A firm rejection was painted on the campus rock.

Currie ran for his life, to the left coast, to redirect the coaching search. Confusion reigned. Soon thereafter, he was dismissed. Phillip Fulmer was brought back to restore order. He hand-picked Jeremy Pruitt to restore the Volunteers.

Virus permitting, Tennessee and Florida will play Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The two teams (and coaches) are speeding in opposite directions. The Gators, 7-1, have all but clinched the East division championship of the Southeastern Conference. The Vols have lost five in a row and are very near a record for ineptness.

If you are an optimist, you see this as an unbelievable chance for Tennessee to make amends, to shock the football world. If you are a realist, you concede the odds are long. If you are a pessimist, you hope the Vols can hold the Gators under 50.

It is unfair to compare the coaches. Mullen is 48, in his 12th year as a main man. He has directed teams in 10 bowl games. He is considered an excellent tutor of quarterbacks. Remember Tim Tebow (Heisman Trophy) and Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys)?

Mullen is ultra-competitive. He says, whatever the sport, even arm-wrestling or rock-throwing, he’ll beat your butt. One of his favorite words is “relentless.”

Insightful tidbit: He wept after his final high school game. He so loved the competition and realized that part was gone forever.

Dan has been dubbed a little bit quirky, or maybe just different, emotional, inflammable, unpredictable.

There was a time in Starkpatch when you could buy an ice cream concoction named for him. The Mullen was a cup of vanilla topped with chocolate syrup, caramel, chocolate chips and M&Ms.

Mullen ran a Boston Marathon as his only road race.

Mullen has occasionally rattled SEC windows and doors. He has yelled at officials and hurt their feelings. The commissioner fined him $25,000 for inciting what could have been a riot.

Pruitt, 46, also competitive, has been penalized for not wearing his anti-virus mask. He has not yet run a marathon.

Jeremy is a defensive coordinator doing on-the-job training as a head coach. His record is 15-17. Mullen is 86-52. Pruitt gets paid a lot. Mullen gets paid more.

It is OK to compare rival quarterbacks. Jarrett Guarantano and Kyle Trask are fifth-year seniors.

Guarantano was a high school all-American, Bergen Catholic in Oradell, New Jersey, No.3 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country.

Trask was second team in high school in Manvel, Texas, a reserve as a sophomore, junior and senior. Florida offered a scholarship based on potential projected in a summer camp. Trask had a choice. He could have gone to Houston Baptist.

If you are updating records, his first college start was last season – against Tennessee. He completed 20 of 28 for 293 and two touchdowns in a 34-3 victory over the Vols.

This season, Trask has thrown 34 TD passes. Guarantano has 38 in his entire career, 32 starts and nine other games. Not incidentally, Jarrett is clinging to his job by his fingernails. Some think he has regressed. Trask is 1-2-3 among Heisman candidates.

You may notice the Brinks truck following Mullen around. He will be coaching against Tennessee for more stacks of money. He gets a bonus of $100,000 if the Gators finish in the top 10 of the AP poll. He gets $100,000 if his team reaches the SEC championship game. He gets $200,000 more if Florida plays in one of the big bowl games.

Really big accomplishments mean even more meaningful paydays. There is so much at stake, Mullen simply can’t afford to lose to the Vols.

Pruitt really can’t afford to lose to anybody. He is trying to convince Tennessee fans that he deserves more time to rescue the Titanic – or at least learn to swim.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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