The University of Tennessee isn't merely searching for a new football coach. If only it were that simple.
UT is searching for an identity in the fluid, high-pressure, big-bucks world of intercollegiate athletics.
"We are in a tenuous position,'' Dave Hart said Sunday, "at a crossroads.''
Hart has been UT's athletic director for 14 months. He's about to make the biggest hire of his 29 years in the biz.
But the hire facing Hart is tougher than any the program has made in decades.
Bringing Johnny Majors home in 1977 was a no-brainer. So was promoting Fulmer as Majors' successor in 1992.
Dooley was an important hire, but a rushed one. He undoubtedly leaves improvements from his 34 months, but they weren't apparent on Saturdays.
"And we had a lot of Saturdays,'' said Hart, "that had a lot of things that you couldn't put your arms around and hug.''
Thus in 2013, Tennessee will have a fourth coach in six years. Because of Dooley's unhuggable Saturdays, hiring his successor is even tougher than hiring Dooley.
But there's more.
The SEC in the 21st Century has cranked up the competition dial to 11. It's no time to stagger in a maze of instability and uncertain leadership.
And not just on the field. Hart referred Sunday to UT going through 12 presidents since 2000. It's only six, but the point is valid. Furthermore, the UTK chancellor — Dr. Jimmy Cheek — is more integral than ever before in the chain of command.
The athletic department is on shaky fiscal ground due to a minimal reserve fund. Certain academic hurdles have hamstrung the product UT puts on the field, Hart said.
Hart will choose the new coach to lead the Vols down the correct path. Make no mistake, it leads uphill.
But everybody, from the ivory tower to the field house, will be on the same page in Hart's vision.
"The chancellor doesn't want us to be at a competitive disadvantage of any nature,'' Hart said, "whether it be financial, or academic or in any other arena where we are trying to compete and get back to the top of the pyramid.''
That would appease a fan base grown suspicious of UT's leadership team.
It should also encourage candidates pondering whether to dive into a rebuilding job in the SEC shark tank. They will ask about those disadvantages.
"We are correcting every one of them,'' Hart said.
So now the Dooley era is over. The game is afoot.
Hart knows the drill. He has hired plenty of coaches. He's already hired three at UT: Brian Pensky in soccer; Matt Kredich to combine men's and women's swimming; and Holly Warlick to succeed Pat Summitt in women's basketball.
Still, football coaches are the marquee hire at any athletic program. Soccer and swimming don't pay the bills.
The best I can figure, Hart, as lead athletic director, has hired two football coaches, Bill Lewis and Steve Logan at East Carolina.
But those hires pale in comparison to the one he has to make now. Tennessee football begs for stability. It begs for the right man to make the right moves to get the right results.
This is a program at a crossroads. Go down the wrong path and it will be years before Tennessee football gets back up that hillside.