If Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart decides to change directions in the football program after this season, the move won't be cheap.
UT would have to pay at least $5.6 million, and perhaps as much as $9.3 million, over the next four years to buy out Derek Dooley and his coaching staff, according to an analysis of employment contracts by the News Sentinel.
All but one of Dooley's nine on-field assistants are working under multiyear contracts, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, Tennessee's highest-paid assistant.
But the payouts to fired coaches could vary based on how quickly they find other employment and how much they are paid in their new jobs.
The university would owe Dooley $5 million, or roughly $102,040 per month, through December 2016. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would be owed about $645,000, spread over monthly payments through December 2013.
That money is guaranteed, meaning any future employment wouldn't affect their payouts from Tennessee.
Every other assistant coach has a clause in his contract requiring him to make a good-faith effort to find new employment to help defray Tennessee's expenses.
For example, if an assistant coach was due to be paid $250,000 by Tennessee and found a job elsewhere paying $150,000, UT would only be on the hook for $100,000.
Special teams coordinator Charlie Coiner's contract runs only through February 2013. But cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley, safeties coach Josh Conklin, running backs coach Jay Graham, receivers coach Darin Hinshaw, defensive line coach John Palermo and offensive line coach Sam Pittman are all under contract through February 2014 and would be in line to make between $250,000 and roughly $344,000.
The biggest expense would be Sunseri, who would be due another $1.84 million through February 2015 if he were dismissed in December. Tennessee could be on the hook for much of that contract if Sunseri is unable to find another position as lucrative.
The total value of Tennessee's conditional obligations to the coaching staff is $3.71 million. Add that to the guaranteed payouts to Dooley and Chaney, and it's a daunting total.
But UT could recoup at least some of the assistants' money through Section 3.1.5 of their contracts, which requires the dismissed coach to use his "reasonable best efforts to mitigate the University's obligation to pay liquidated damages ... by making reasonable and diligent efforts as soon as practicable following termination to obtain another comparable (position)."
While Dooley and Chaney are not bound by such a clause, the sticker shock of Dooley's $5 million buyout is eased by it being payable over four years, rather than in one lump sum.
Even assuming the worst-case scenario — no assistants are able to find jobs and Tennessee is on the hook for all of them — UT would have to pay no more than $350,000 per month through 2013, $172,000 per month through 2014 and $102,000 per month through 2015. That's a lot of money, but it wouldn't require Hart to instantly round up $9 million in cash.
Dooley has been insulated by a generous buyout clause since he came to Tennessee after the 2009 season. The school was seeking stability in the wake of Lane Kiffin's one-year tenure, so the contract was difficult for either side to break cheaply.
When Dooley's contract was extended after his first season at UT, the buyout calendar was also extended. Under his original contract, the buyout would have dropped to $4 million next year. In the amended contract, the $5 million buyout remains in place through Feb. 15, 2014.
Talk of the buyout surfaced again after Dooley was questioned Monday about an Internet report written by John Pennington of MrSEC.com. Citing three unnamed sources, the report said Dooley had offered to resign after the 2011 season if the university would agree to pay his full buyout.
Dooley called the story "absurd," then launched into an anecdote about his high school coach, who would walk into the principal's office after every season and offer his resignation. Dooley joked that he didn't have the courage to do the same. "I'd be a real dumbass to do something like that," he said with a laugh.
Dooley isn't the only coach with a large buyout, although the size can vary considerably in the SEC. Auburn coach Gene Chizik would be owed a whopping $7.5 million if he is let go after this year, although Chizik's contract contains a clause requiring him to use "reasonable efforts" to find other work. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips would be owed $2.55 million if he is dismissed, according to media reports.
By contrast, Florida coach Will Muschamp would be paid only the remainder of his base salary ($250,000 per year) if he were ever dismissed. Muschamp would owe Florida $500,000 if he left on his own.
Tennessee players said they've tried to tune out talk about Dooley's future this week.
"It's not the coaches, it's the players," said linebacker Curt Maggitt. "The pressure shouldn't be on (Dooley)."
Offensive lineman Alex Bullard said the team "stands behind" Dooley.
"I don't think it's fair. We're all in this together," he said. "People are going to talk, but our job is do what we're asked to do and win games."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.