Tennessee football has been full of “what could’ve been” moments over the last 5-10 years. Everything from missing out on signing Tajh Boyd at quarterback to almost hiring Charlie Strong at head coach, the Vols have had their fair share of “what ifs” ever since the firing of Phillip Fulmer.
Now Vol fans can add another one of those moments to an already long list.
According to an interview with Chris Low of ESPN, TCU head football coach Gary Patterson said that Tennessee told him they didn’t think he had what it took to be the head coach of a program like Tennessee.
Patterson said he interviewed for the Vols’ vacant head coaching position after the university had let go of Fulmer after the 2008 season. And Patterson said during that interview, he never felt as though Tennessee’s representatives were truly interested in him.
“Tennessee didn’t think I could handle the big stage,” Patterson told Low. “My wife and I went to dinner with them, and I could tell they had already decided on Kiffin. It was the same with Nebraska. I interviewed and could tell they had already decided on (Bo) Pelini.
“I think a lot of these ADs now are more interested in hiring guys who’re going to win the podium than they are in hiring football coaches, and there’s a lot more to it than that if you’re going to win championships.”
As Low said, Tennessee went on to hire Lane Kiffin, and the rest is history. Kiffin bolted after one 7-6 season, then Tennessee had to scramble to find another coach and ultimately hired Derek Dooley. After three seasons, Dooley was fired, and then the Vols hired Butch Jones. And now it looks as though Jones is on the way out after five seasons with the Vols.
Patterson had been the head coach of TCU since the bowl game in the 2000 season and had already accumulated a strong track record when he interviewed for the Tennessee position after the 2008 season. He was 73-27 during that span and had taken TCU to a bowl game in every season but one. TCU was in both Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference in those early years, and Patterson had never coached at a Power Five school at that point.
And it was because of that lack of experience that Tennessee ultimately passed on Patterson.
Since then, however, Patterson has become one of the best coaches in all of college football. Patterson helped lead the Horned Frogs to a Fiesta Bowl appearance the season after Tennessee didn’t hire him, and he’s helped TCU reach the Rose and Peach Bowl as well. His 2010 TCU squad went undefeated and finished No. 2 in the AP Poll.
TCU joined the Big 12 in 2012, and now Patterson has proven he has what it takes to coach “on the big stage.” As a coach of a Power Five team, Patterson has gone 48-25 including an 8-1 record this season, and the Horned Frogs won the Big 12 back in 2014 and are right in the thick of things right now.
Tennessee, meanwhile, hasn’t won an SEC title or even an SEC East crown since they elected to pass on Patterson. In fact, the Vols have had four seasons below .500 since passing on Patterson, and they could be destined for a fifth such season this year. Patterson has only seen two such seasons in the nine years since.
When Low asked Patterson if he would’ve accepted either the Tennessee or Nebraska position had it been offered to him, he simply smiled and replied, “It’s sort of like the old Garth Brooks song. Sometimes the best prayers are unanswered prayers.”