KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | A nationwide search for head football coach? It's almost a foreign concept at Tennessee.
Now that coach Phillip Fulmer has announced he's stepping down at the university's request at the end of this season, it's reality for Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. And Hamilton wrote in an e-mail late Monday night after Fulmer's public announcement that the school is starting a national search immediately.
"We have a great university, world-class student-athletes, tremendous fans and first-class facilities," he wrote. "As a result, we will attract some of the nation's best candidates. We will introduce a new coach to you over the next several weeks."
For the first time in decades, that coach may truly be new to the Tennessee program.
Since beloved Volunteers coach Gen. Robert R. Neyland retired in 1952 because of declining health, Tennessee coaches have had strong ties to the school or were hand-picked by athletic directors.
It was true for Fulmer, who filled in for then-coach Johnny Majors for three games in 1992 while Majors recovered from heart surgery. Majors was forced out later that season after losing three straight, and Fulmer was in place as the head coach by the time Tennessee played in the Hall of Fame Bowl on Jan. 1.
Majors, a Tennessee tailback who finished second in the 1956 Heisman Trophy voting, had just coached Pittsburgh to a national championship. Harvey Robinson and Bowden Wyatt — both coaches in the '50s — were former Vols players.
Doug Dickey, who later served as athletic director, was a rare foray outside the Vol family as a Florida player. But he was the top pick for the job in 1964, and his successor in 1970, Bill Battle, was one of his assistants.
The most senior Tennessee assistant right now is defensive coordinator John Chavis. The defensive mastermind and former Vols defensive lineman has declined other job offers received through his 20-year career at Tennessee.
Chavis, 52, on Tuesday dodged most questions about his interest in the job, but said he doesn't plan to throw his name into the mix of candidates.
"I want the rest of the season to be about what we need to get done. I've been here 20 years. People know who I am. I'll just leave it at that," Chavis said.
Another coach with strong ties to the program — Duke coach David Cutcliffe — said Tuesday he has no plans of returning to Tennessee, the school where he spent eight years as Vols offensive coordinator.
Tennessee fans may not even be interested in seeing someone with ties to the program land in the head coaching spot, thanks in part to the success of the basketball program in recent years.
Hamilton, Tennessee's athletic director for just over five years, made his best-known hire after firing basketball coach Buzz Peterson.
He used a search firm to help identify candidates and make initial contacts with prospective coaches, but did not use a search committee as previous ADs had done.
That search landed Bruce Pearl, the energetic coach now credited with turning the program around and taking it to uncharted levels of success.
On message boards and radio shows, fans have listed a number of young coaches with no Tennessee ties as their dream candidate: former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, Boise State coach Chris Peterson and Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, to name a few.
Hamilton is being mum for now on how he plans to handle this coaching search or what exactly he's looking for in the next coach.
"I don't want to get into all of that today. This is more about Phillip," he said.
Fulmer said he would help Tennessee in any way if he's asked to while the program makes the transition.
He also said he and his staff would continue to "do a good job" of recruiting in his last few weeks. Tennessee has a 2009 recruiting class currently ranked No. 6 nationally by Rivals.com and No. 9 by Scout.com.
"It's a great place to be. Great fans and facilities and tradition and opportunities are aplenty. They'll be able to see that," Fulmer said. "A number of them have been on campus already and even through a very tough season have committed and stayed with us. Hopefully a lot of those guys will do that."