Stars Aligning For Tee Martin’s Return To Tennessee

    Tennessee could have a head coach opening at the end of this year. Former Volunteer QB Tee Martin ought to be on the short list if Butch Jones is relieved of his duties.

    February 6, 2017

    Tennessee could have a head coach opening at the end of this year. Former Volunteer QB Tee Martin ought to be on the short list if Butch Jones is relieved of his duties.


    Tennessee head coach Butch Jones will begin 2017 pressed firmly on the hot seat. Former Volunteer quarterback Tee Martin, now the offensive coordinator at USC, is a rapid riser in the coaching ranks. If Jones stumbles this year, the paths of the two coaches could intersect in December.

    Yes, Jones has elevated the Vols in his four seasons, winning nine games in back-to-back years for the first time in a decade. And five of his last eight teams, including stints at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, ended years in the Top 25. This is a far cry from Derek Dooley, both in terms of results and recruiting. But there’s good and then there’s good enough at a school like UT, which is hungry for a return to SEC relevance. Jones and his team weren’t good enough in 2016, which could have a carryover effect this fall.

    Last year was pegged as breakout time for Tennessee. All of the planets aligned above Knoxville, from a talented veteran squad and staff to an East Division devoid of complete contenders. Everybody was on the trendy Vols last offseason. And everybody looked smart after the team started 5-0, highlighted by rousing fourth-quarter comebacks to beat division rivals Florida and Georgia. But Tennessee hit a wall in October, closing the regular season 3-4 and finishing in a three-way tie for second place in the division.

    With the offensive backfield stripped by a graduation, an early departure to the NFL and an unexpected transfer, it’s entirely possible Jones may have peaked at Tennessee when Jauan Jennings pulled down Josh Dobbs’ Hail Mary in Athens last Oct. 1.

    Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, Martin’s star is beginning to shine brighter, with another uptick in his reputation and appeal likely to occur this fall. After bouncing around the NFL and the CFL as a journeyman quarterback, he’s nicely settled into a career that accentuates his football acumen, his poise and his ability to connect with young people.

    Tee Martin
    Tee Martin could return to his alma mater, Tennessee, if the stars align this season. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Ironically, the star athlete from Mobile, Alabama is building his coaching brag sheet in Los Angeles, far from the SEC battles that first thrust him into the national lexicon almost two decades ago. After four successful seasons coaching the USC receivers, Martin was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2016. His Trojans finished the year as one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning nine in a row behind an offense that averaged 40 points during the run.

    And then there’s Sam Darnold, Martin’s young quarterback prodigy, who spearheaded last season’s turnaround as a redshirt freshman. Darnold’s continued evolution into a superstar will undeniably have a direct correlative impact on Martin’s career trajectory.

    It’s been a shockingly long time since Tennessee has won an SEC championship. Almost two decades, in fact, since the 1998 Volunteers swept the schedule to not only capture the Southeastern Conference crown but also the national title. The quarterback of that perfect team? A young and confident Tee Martin. The coach? Phil Fulmer, a candidate to replace current athletic director Dave Hart, who’s retiring on June 30. Of course, there are never any guarantees that past will be prologue, but with nothing else working up to snuff, would it be wrong to consider getting the old band back together?

    All signs, early though they may be this offseason, point to Jones and Martin traveling down disparate paths in 2017. And yet, the pair could be tightly linked by an invisible 2,000-mile bond stretching across multiple time zones. Jones’ deepest and most title-ready squad underachieved in 2016, amplifying doubts about his ability to bring hardware back to Rocky Top. His fifth squad is likely to go in reverse, especially if no adequate replacement for Dobbs is developed this offseason. Jones’ catchy slogans, once motivational in the community, have become less tolerable now that they’re not backed up by commensurate on-field results.

    Martin? Sure, he’s only 38, with a single season as a coordinator. But he’s undeniably hot, and he’s about to sizzle, with Darnold serving as a youthful advertisement of what quality coaching produces. To be clear, Martin is a head coach-in-waiting. It’s only a matter of when and where. Knoxville makes a lot of sense, even if there’s a brief and unavoidable learning curve. Martin knows the local terrain, and his ability to recruit outside the region is essential for a program lacking the fertile territory of, say, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Auburn or Alabama.

    Jones won’t have the backing of Hart, the AD who hired him, this fall. And with another title-less season, a new administration might pull the plug after five years, even with a hefty buyout left to be settled. The last three attempts to find a coach outside the family, Lane Kiffin, Dooley and Jones, didn’t deliver. If the mediocrity continues in 2017, it could be time for the Vols to promote one of their own.

    Coaches leading at their alma mater have had a rich and successful history, from Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), David Shaw (Stanford), Paul Chryst (Wisconsin) and Mark Richt (Miami) today to the likes of Steve Spurrier (Florida) and Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) in the past. Although it’s always tough to connect the coaching dots this far in advance, Martin could get his chance to join the unique club later this year. He’s getting closer to being head coach-ready, and his Vols might have an opening at the end of the regular season.

    MORE: Tee Martin Listed Among Power Five Recruiters Of The Year

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