Mike Strange: At a crossroad, Tennessee can't afford to take the wrong path

Mike Strange
Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, left, poses with head coach Derek Dooley in the Peyton Manning Locker Room Complex at Neyland Stadium Friday, Jan. 15, 2010.

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, left, poses with head coach Derek Dooley in the Peyton Manning Locker Room Complex at Neyland Stadium Friday, Jan. 15, 2010.

Who should Tennessee go after as its next coach?

See the results »

View previous polls »

Raw video: Dave Hart press conference on Dooley's firing

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.

That it was time to replace Derek Dooley had become obvious. More so than Tennessee axing Phillip Fulmer in 2008, 11 months after he coached in the SEC championship game.

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.

As AD, Mike Hamilton went 0-for-2 on football hires. Lane Kiffin might or might not have worked out in the long run, but there was no long run.

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.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

© 2012 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Topics

Related Stories

Comments » 20

spacehistorian writes:

Lots of Twitter chatter (especially from Mike Griffith) about bringing back Fulmer. AD Hart doesn't have a relationship with Fulmer so I wonder if he would even get a serious look by the powers that be at UT right now. Would Big Orange Nation welcome Fulmer back or would it be seen as a sign that the University couldn't get any other qualified coach to come to Rocky Top. The SEC is a semipro conference now and we need this hire to be a great one if we want to see our beloved Vols competitive and fighting for conference championships again anytime soon.

bspurlingcac#225603 writes:

You don’t want to be the guy to follow a legendary coach (Phil)…you want to follow the guy(s) that did.

Phil was the man for around 16+ years. Lane was not here long enough to be the guy that followed the man. Dooley was and he did some things to set up the next guy. It was unfortunate for Dooley that he could never get over the hump and now must go. (I supported Dooley…however he has lost the team completely after the Missouri game). A change is now necessary.

This next hire is critical to the success of the UT football/Athletic program for the next 20 years. The next Head Football Coach at the University of Tennessee will need to be a proven winner every where he has been, dynamic recruiter, no NCAA problems, heck of a motivator, outstanding X & O’s coach and leader of men etc. He will not come cheap…now is the time to make a statement if the program is going to move forward and get back to greatness.

The University leaders need put up huge funding for the Head Coach and make a grand commitment to the whole assistant coaching/weight training staff. The facilities are in place and the fan base is hurting for a significant hire.

We will all be watching for the next move. Go Big Orange!
....

SummittsCourt writes:

Right now, I don't have a lot of confidence in Dave Hart, especially with Jimmy Cheek being involved.

Fire the lot of them and start over from the top.

underthehill writes:

in response to SummittsCourt:

Right now, I don't have a lot of confidence in Dave Hart, especially with Jimmy Cheek being involved.

Fire the lot of them and start over from the top.

If you want an interesting poll ..this would be it..I have no doubt you are stating the majority opinion..but I don't think it will happen..

djohnnyg writes:

in response to SummittsCourt:

Right now, I don't have a lot of confidence in Dave Hart, especially with Jimmy Cheek being involved.

Fire the lot of them and start over from the top.

THAT won't happen.

Let's be realistic. Hart is gonna be the man to make the hire, so let's just accept it.

Where in the world do you find a guy that meets all the criteria of the stuff Strange mentions? Strange is correct; UT NEEDS a guy who encompasses all those things but I don't know who that would be.

-Urban Meyer? He won't come here.

-Bob Stoops? I don't know.

-Peterson from Boise? Good one.

-Saban? No way he'd come.

I do know that whomever it is, unless it's someone along the lines of the above mentioned, there are gonna be ALOT of Vol fans, students, Alumni who will not like it.

HeyWhitey writes:

Kirby Smart would be a good one, just a matter of time before he's a head coach somewhere

VolzsFan writes:

"Still, football coaches are the marquee hire at any athletic program".

Strange is the only media guy in town that has a clue now that Griff is gone. But he is wrong here. It is the marquee hire at about 25 programs. The rest lose money in football. There are hundreds of D1 schools so most schools that is not the marquee hire.

Stooley_Dinks writes:

in response to SummittsCourt:

Right now, I don't have a lot of confidence in Dave Hart, especially with Jimmy Cheek being involved.

Fire the lot of them and start over from the top.

If you watched the press conference today, I don't know how you could not feel a little better about Hart and the possibility of the Athletic Dept getting over its "hump" with the UT Admin. It may all be talk, but it was addressed. Hart looked confident and in control. He really had nothing to do with the mess in the AD.

You should reserve judgement until a hire is made.

jbc writes:

Chris Petersen
Dave Doeren
Gary Patterson
Mark Hudspeth
Guz Malzahn
Pete Lembo
Kyle Whittingham
Pat Fitzgerald

Bill Cowher
Jon Gruden
Tony Dungy
Andy Reid
Mike Holmgren
Jeff Fisher
Sean Payton

gobigorange5090 writes:

in response to HeyWhitey:

Kirby Smart would be a good one, just a matter of time before he's a head coach somewhere

Tennessee cant afford to hire an assistant coach this time. Get over Smart already.

Sir_Spanky writes:

in response to spacehistorian:

Lots of Twitter chatter (especially from Mike Griffith) about bringing back Fulmer. AD Hart doesn't have a relationship with Fulmer so I wonder if he would even get a serious look by the powers that be at UT right now. Would Big Orange Nation welcome Fulmer back or would it be seen as a sign that the University couldn't get any other qualified coach to come to Rocky Top. The SEC is a semipro conference now and we need this hire to be a great one if we want to see our beloved Vols competitive and fighting for conference championships again anytime soon.

Fulmer? Why, you'd have a divided fan base from the start... Also, somebody needs to make it clear to Hart/Cheek that if this gets screwed up they're unemployed. These people are paid too much money to be allowed to do what Mike Hamilton did.

Paint_Rock_Vol writes:

Why would we bring Fulmer back?
Ans. To hire the next HC at the University of Tennessee and I'm talking about the one we would have AFTER Fulmer. If we can't get a proven coach that has experience as an HC, then we don't want to make another roll of the dice with an assistant. I would hire Fulmer as a 4-5 year "interim" coach (yes, but "headcoach in waiting" was radical also), and task him with hiring UT's next HC that would be either the OC or DC off his staff depending on who works out.

While Fulmer's hiring of the coach from Richmond as his OC was one of the reasons we're in this ordeal, he was limited by funds - he wasn't given the money to hire someone like, say, Kippy Brown as the OC. When the story is written someday, I think the downfall may well be traced to that decision to not let Fulmer spend the money to get his OC. That decision led to Kiffin and Dooley.

asleep#212036 writes:

in response to spacehistorian:

Lots of Twitter chatter (especially from Mike Griffith) about bringing back Fulmer. AD Hart doesn't have a relationship with Fulmer so I wonder if he would even get a serious look by the powers that be at UT right now. Would Big Orange Nation welcome Fulmer back or would it be seen as a sign that the University couldn't get any other qualified coach to come to Rocky Top. The SEC is a semipro conference now and we need this hire to be a great one if we want to see our beloved Vols competitive and fighting for conference championships again anytime soon.

I like Phil and his place in the annals of UT football is honored and deserved. Further, I think he was treated shamefully by Hamilton back in 2008 and we are still reaping the rewards from that debacle. Plain and simple, Phil won by putting better players on the field than most the of the other SEC teams. In his heyday, Bama, Georgia, LSU, and South Carolina were struggling. The only real competition for him in those days was Auburn (better coached) and Florida (better players and coach), teams against which he had losing records. What he did was bring incredible talent to Knoxville and then pretty much let them play, which was good enough to win 150+ games. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned teams have talent issues any more. Add in Texas A & M, Miss St, and a surging Ole Miss and the SEC is a gauntlet that overwhelming talent can't overcome alone. I really think the fan base would see Fulmer's hire as another desperate move, like Dooley, and I guarantee the other SEC coaches would preach that to every recruit - they fired him 5 years ago and now he's the only one who would take the job..... Hart will simply have to find a new guy with an established reputation that would consider UT a long-term prospect and then pay him well enough he won't leave if he's successful. Go Vols!!!

calvolfromkingsport writes:

Hart doesn't have anyone in mind and everyone in mind from his statements made to the press about coming to coach at UT. What a shame. Gonna be a long rocky top ride an no doubt that many of the posters here deserve the grief and pain they'll feel. The University of Tennessee now competing with Auburn University for the "Grass is always Greener " Trophy.

west_tn_volfan writes:

I really don't think Hart is going to make this decision. I think the big money boosters are going to, or already have, decided who will be the next HC. Of course the announcement will come from Hart but the choice will be dictated to him by the people with the purse strings, who are thoroughly fed up with what they have been seeing. A doctor, who is a big booster, said this. Is it true? I wouldn't bet my life on it but it does sound plausible.

RoyaltyVol writes:

in response to spacehistorian:

Lots of Twitter chatter (especially from Mike Griffith) about bringing back Fulmer. AD Hart doesn't have a relationship with Fulmer so I wonder if he would even get a serious look by the powers that be at UT right now. Would Big Orange Nation welcome Fulmer back or would it be seen as a sign that the University couldn't get any other qualified coach to come to Rocky Top. The SEC is a semipro conference now and we need this hire to be a great one if we want to see our beloved Vols competitive and fighting for conference championships again anytime soon.

Hiring Fulmer back would be a huge mistake! IMO the only reason Fulmer was successful was because he inherited a great team and system that Johnny Majors built. This time he would be the rebuilder which he has never done and I think hiring Fulmer back would also divide us.

murrayvol writes:

Get it right Dave. I don't have that many years left.

Pompey writes:

...with no oversight by those in charge Mike Hamilton cut a wide swath of distruction through both UT's athletic department and football program and left them for dead. Until the quality oversight issue is addressed at Tennessee and the "ole boy" club is challenged don't count on the Vols to rejoin major college football anytime soon....!

dgcarter43 writes:

One positive for hiring Chris Petersen would be the posibility of re-uniting him with Justin Wilcox as his DC. Wilcox put a much better defense on the field with less talent and experience than Sal Sunseri had to work with. His defense had a much higher rating than this year's squad.

jbc writes:

in response to jbc:

Chris Petersen
Dave Doeren
Gary Patterson
Mark Hudspeth
Guz Malzahn
Pete Lembo
Kyle Whittingham
Pat Fitzgerald

Bill Cowher
Jon Gruden
Tony Dungy
Andy Reid
Mike Holmgren
Jeff Fisher
Sean Payton

Chris Peterson
Boise State
9-2
8th defense

Dave Doeren
Northern Illinois
10-1
15th offense 488.73 yards per game

Pete Lembo
Ball State
8-3
18th offense

Guz Malzahn
Arkansas State
8-3
19th offense

Pat Fitzgerald
Northwestern
8-3

Gary Patterson
TCU
6-4
16th defense

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Features