Late last night, the Jon Gruden coaching rumors went from mere smoke to a four alarm fire with one of the crazier reports the coaching realm has seen involving a prominent college program, a new NFL owner, and an ownership stake for Gruden in one of the NFL's most storied franchises.

WREG in Memphis reported Tuesday night that Jon Gruden had a contract offer from the University of Tennessee to be their next head coach.  To sweeten the deal, Gruden was also offered an unknown ownership stake in the Cleveland Browns.  The connection?  New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is a Tennessee booster whose father played for the university while his brother is currently the governor of the state.  

"News Channel 3 has learned former NFL coach Jon Gruden has a contract offer in hand from the University of Tennessee and a decision could be made as early as Wednesday.

Part of the offer is Gruden getting a piece of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who were recently bought by Jimmy Haslam III, one of UT’s biggest boosters.

Haslam’s father is Jim Haslam, multi-millionaire and founder of Pilot. Jim played on Tennessee’s national championship teams in the early 1950s."

Wednesday morning, the denials came fast and furious from both the Cleveland Browns and Jon Gruden.  The Browns released a statement via the Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Jimmy Haslam has no involvement in the University of Tennessee head coaching search, and the report that Jon Gruden would potentially have an ownership stake in the Browns is completely erroneous,'' read the statement, released by Browns spokesman Neal Gulkis.  

Jon Gruden spoke out about the rumors during his weekly appearance on Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio.  Give credit to Mike Greenberg and the operation there for at least  acknowledging the report at the start of the interview and asking Gruden directly about it.  Gruden, of course, denied it also, and talked about how excited he is for Monday Night Football. Gruden sternly said he didn't have the time to talk about coaching rumors in great detail and is "trying to hang on to the job he has."  (Feel free to giggle politely at that last part.)

Is there any truth to this particular rumor?  As the story has progressed, it's looking unlikely.  Not necessarily because of the denials from Gruden (hello Urban Meyer) and the Browns, but because of the practicality of an NFL owner offering a piece of a franchise to lure a coach to a university.  It may not even be a legal possibility by both NFL and NCAA rules.  John Infante of the Bylaw Blog has an excellent breakdown looking at the rules in place that would keep this from happening… 

"NCAA rules prohibit boosters from supplementing the pay of coaches. Any pay or benefits must come from the university. The same goes for in-kind gifts. Courtesy cars from dealers who are donors or sponsors are first donated to the university, then provided by the athletic department for the coach’s use. That would mean Haslem would have to donate an interest in the Browns to Tennessee, who would then “pay” Gruden with that interest.

But Haslem cannot give an interest in the Browns to UT. NFL Bylaw 3.2(B)(2) states that interest in a holding company which holds NFL franchise rights may only be held directly by individuals or by certain partnerships or trusts approved by the commissioner. Rule 3.2(A) also says that nonprofit corporations (which the University of Tennessee and its athletic department are) may not become new members of the league, although that would not seem to apply in this case, but shows a preference for not having nonprofits involved in NFL ownership." 

Even though this report from Memphis looks unlikely, I'd still be steamed if I was a Browns fan this morning to see my team associated with a report like this.  To even imagine an NFL team could be used as nothing more than a bargaining chip for a college coaching job is insulting to say the least.  As if Jimmy Haslam didn't have enough conspiracy theorists wondering about him being a Steelers fan, now Browns fans have to worry about their owner being more concerned with Tennesee's head coaching position than their own.  Have you seen Pat Shurmur coach a game???

But as far as ESPN and Jon Gruden goes, this is only the beginning.  This crazy Tennessee report is the first specific one linking Gruden with a job that Chucky had to personally deny in this cycle.  The reports will keep coming until the day Gruden leaves the Monday Night Football booth though, whether it be for a college or an NFL job.  Gruden will continue to deny them and talk about his love for Monday Night Football, much in the same way Urban Meyer denied he was going to coach Ohio State.  But as with Urban Meyer, a day will come when Gruden's love for the broadcast booth won't stop him from returning to the sidelines.

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