Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart has a pitch for his next football coach: Come work for a school with great tradition, passionate fans and lucrative pay, reviving a storied program that has hit hard times.
Hart dismissed Derek Dooley on Sunday, ending a bleak three-year tenure in which the Vols occupied the bottom of a league that they once ruled. Since 2008, coach Phillip Fulmer's final season, the Vols are 27-34 and 11-28 in the SEC.
Hart said the next football coach will be tasked with leading the program through a critical "crossroads."
"This is a great place, a tremendous place," Hart said. "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."
Hart was frank about the program's challenges: The facilities need work. The department's financial health is weak. The Vols are competing in a conference that is more competitive than ever.
So why, Hart was asked, would a candidate want to come work for a program whose glory days seem so long in the past?
"I don't know that (the job) has lost its luster," Hart said. "We've had five very difficult years. I look at that from a positive perspective. I would view it as a heck of an opportunity. If the support is there — and it is — I would have every level of confidence that I can turn it around."
Hart said UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek was committed to helping the Vols "get back to the top of the pyramid" in athletics.
"This will be a collective effort from a lot of people to have us take our rightful place in the SEC and beyond," Hart said.
Hart said he would conduct the search himself, and probably wouldn't retain an outside consulting firm to screen candidates. Candidates with prior head coaching experience are preferred, he said.
As for rumors that discussions with candidates have already begun, Hart had a forceful response.
"I've contacted no one. I've back-channeled no one. Those conversations have not begun," Hart said.
That hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning.
Former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, now coach at Duke, told the Charlotte Observer emphatically on Sunday, "I will be coaching at Duke next year."
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Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported Sunday that Jon Gruden, the former NFL coach and current ESPN Monday Night Football commentator, is mulling a return to coaching and has called prospective staff members "with his focus seeming more on the college game."
Gruden has little college experience, but he was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986, and met his wife, Cindy, a former UT cheerleader, in Knoxville.
An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com Sunday that "Jon remains committed to ESPN."
The NCAA extended Tennessee's probationary window by two years on Friday after finding major violations committed by Willie Mack Garza, an assistant coach under Lane Kiffin, in 2009. Hart said that reinforces the importance of hiring a coach with a squeaky-clean reputation.
"We want somebody with integrity. We don't have a margin for error," Hart said. "We have to have a culture of compliance."
Hart wouldn't put a firm time frame on the search and told fans to stop worrying that the Vols are being left behind in the race to hire a candidate.
"Some people have a false sense that we're late," Hart said. "We're not. We're fine. I've done this many times. People need to take a deep breath. The door is not closing on our opportunities to find the right person."
Hart didn't think he would scare off any candidates by his frank appraisal of Tennessee's challenges.
"The coaches will do their homework, just as we will do our homework," Hart said. "My pitch to them is that this is a great place, an attractive place to come and be the head football coach at the University of Tennessee and be the person responsible for providing the leadership that takes us back up the hillside."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.