Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart said he realizes the challenges involved in rejuvenating the Volunteers’ football program.
The Volunteers are assured of their third consecutive losing season and second straight year without a bowl bid. Tennessee had a $3.98 million budget deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year and lacks the financial reserves of its SEC rivals. Tennessee also is on probation until August 2015.
“We haven’t had success in five to six years, and we have had five very difficult years,” Hart said at the news conference announcing the firing of Derek Dooley. “I look at that from a positive perspective. I always put myself in the other role. Trade places. I am the candidate. How am I viewing this? I would view it as a heck of an opportunity.”
Although Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) still must finish its season Saturday against Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) in a game that pits an interim head coach (Vols offensive coordinator Jim Chaney) against a lame-duck coach (Kentucky’s Joker Phillips), that contest is being overshadowed by the Vols’ coaching search.
Chaney said Monday that the players were “shell-shocked a little bit” over the news, but some Vols realized a change was possible long before Sunday’s announcement. Sophomore offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said he began preparing himself after Tennessee’s 51-48 overtime loss to Missouri on Nov. 10.
“I prepped my mind for it,” Richardson said. “The thing is, I came in knowing it was going to be a business. My father, he warned me that it’s going to be a business. Coaches, they come and go. It’s just what it is. It’s a business. I love Coach Dooley. He’s done a lot for me personally in my growth as a man and a player. I appreciate what he’s done for me the last two years. But it’s a business and we’ve got to move forward.”
Without mentioning any candidates by name, Hart may have dropped some hints about his plans.
For instance, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart might seem like a logical match. Smart, a former winner of the Frank Broyles Award given annually to the nation’s top assistant, knows the SEC. Hart came to Tennessee from Alabama and is quite familiar with Smart. But at his news conference, Hart said he considered previous head coaching experience “critically important.” Smart has none.
“I think it is very difficult to come into the Southeastern Conference without (head coaching experience) being present,” Hart said. “This league, it is a different world.”
Hart said he wants someone who “has had success and knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC.” Bobby Petrino would fit that profile after leading Arkansas to a combined 21-5 record in 2010 and 2011.
Yet Hart also mentioned integrity as one of the qualities he was seeking in a coach. That could hurt the chances of Petrino, who was fired in April for failing to disclose his relationship with Jessica Dorrell and for hiring her without noting his conflict of interest. And it would seem to rule out former Miami and North Carolina coach Butch Davis, who was fired by the Tar Heels in July 2011 amid an NCAA investigation.
“We want somebody with integrity,” Hart said. “That is important. We just had our probation extended, as you are well aware. We don’t have a margin for error. We have to have a culture of compliance. That is the No. 1 priority in our athletic department.”
The candidate mentioned most often by Tennessee fans is former NFL coach Jon Gruden, who worked as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986-87 and who married a former Tennessee cheerleader. But he hasn’t coached at the college level since 1989 and could be considered for a number of NFL openings if he chooses to leave the broadcast booth.
Duke coach and former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe removed his name from consideration Sunday by saying he would remain in his current position next year.
The search has the attention of the players, even as they prepare for Kentucky.
Junior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said he wanted to speak with Hart about his hopes that the new hire keep Sam Pittman as the Vols’ offensive line coach. The Vols have allowed only seven sacks all season.
Jacques Smith, a junior linebacker, said he hoped the new coach would restore the spirit and belief to the program. Smith referred to the energy that surrounded campus the week of the Florida game after the Vols opened the season with two wins.
“I just feel like we need someone to ignite that fire again in UT,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ll definitely bring someone (like that) in, and I know these players, we’re going to work as hard as we can no matter who’s brought in. We’re definitely going to be fighting for an SEC contender spot and hopefully a national championship next year.”