Dave Hart was candid Sunday about the fact that the University of Tennessee is behind much of the rest of the Southeastern Conference financially and in the performance of its football program.
The university’s athletics director also was adamant, though, about the fact that UT is not behind schedule when it comes to identifying and hiring the next football coach.
Hart made the widely anticipated decision to fire Derek Dooley a day after the Volunteers were whipped 41-18 by Vanderbilt. Some figured it should have happened weeks earlier, such as when UT was winless in October capped by a 31-point loss at home to Alabama. Other might have anticipated it a week earlier when the Volunteers blew a second-half lead and lost in overtime to Missouri, also at home.
“Some people have a false sense that we are late, we are not, we are fine,” Hart said. “I have done this many times. People need to take a deep breath. The door is not closing on our opportunities to find the right person.”
The person Hart hires will be the fourth to lead the program in six years. He will inherit a team that is winless in the SEC this season and is saddled with NCAA sanctions. He also will join a university that currently operates at a significant disadvantage in terms of dollars and cents.
“We have a 1.9 million dollar reserve which in the SEC is unheard of,” Hart said. “We complete against people who have reserves of about 50-100 million dollars. We are in a tough position financially. The Chancellor [Jimmy Cheek] doesn't want us to be at a competitive disadvantage of any nature whether it be financial, or academic or in any other arena where we are trying to compete and get back into the top of that pyramid. We are in a tenuous position, at a crossroads with our athletics program. But, we have people who understand that and are committed to helping us overcome those obstacles.
“That won't be a detriment, is it a concern? Yes it is a concern.”
Hart said he wants someone with “integrity” who will foster a “culture of compliance,” especially in light of the fact that the NCAA recently extended the program’s probation.
Beyond that, he considers experience as a head coach absolutely necessary.
“I think it is very difficult to come into the Southeastern Conference without that being present,” he said. “This league, it is a different world. We are at the end of the football season and we still have five teams in the top 10 in the country. I won't be surprised to see one or two SEC in the national championship game again.
“This is the ultimate challenge that competitors embrace for a football coach. If you are a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come to the Southeastern Conference and Tennessee.”
Dooley was fired with one game remaining in his third season. He went 15-21 overall, 4-19 in the SEC since he replaced Lane Kiffin.
The Volunteers currently are 0-7 in the SEC, a first in the history of the program.
“I will tell you while the results, which are very important are not what he wanted, not what the team wanted, not what our fan base wanted, Derek Dooley did indeed improve this program,” Hart said. “There is no question about that. … He did a good job in a lot of areas in putting a solid foundation under our football program.
“We will now move forward in our search process with the goal of securing the best coach we possibly can to come and lead the football program at Tennessee. You have heard me say this before. This is a great place, a tremendous place. We have tradition, we have history, we have a brand that is still meaningful. But, we have a long way to go to get back to where we need to be.”