KNOXVILLE -- Despite a 36-31 record in the past five seasons, no national or conference championships in the past decade and a second head coaching search in 15 months, men's athletic director Mike Hamilton steadfastly believes the University of Tennessee still offers one of college football's best gigs.
Hamilton emphasized that several times Wednesday afternoon, when he briefed reporters before flying out of town to start meeting potential replacements for the recently departed Lane Kiffin.
"Tennessee football is not going away," Hamilton said. "We've had unbelievable success for a number of years. We're going to continue to have great success in the months and years ahead. That's a fact. We will press on toward the goal, and that is victory for Tennessee.
"We've had success. This is not a fly-by-night organization."
But it's an organization that racked up frequent-flyer miles looking for head coaches the past two winters.
Here's another fact: National signing day is three weeks away, and many of UT's blockbuster collection of commitments have at least openly stated the possibility of attending other schools.
"The timing is critical," Hamilton said. "If you were going to choose when to have something like this happen, this is not the time ... but that's the nature of our business sometimes.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TRACEY TRUMBULL/CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS - University of Tennessee football Coach Lane Kiffin has left the school and UT football fans for USC, as announced Tuesday .
"We're worried about the immediacy of the next few days, and making sure that we get the coach in place."
But who will be the coach? Sources in Texas and Colorado said UT has either met with or plans to meet with Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Air Force Academy head coach Troy Calhoun -- who several sources claimed finished a close second to Lane Kiffin in last year's search. The Vols also strongly considered TCU head coach Gary Patterson last season, and sources said UT officials spent part of Wednesday in Forth Worth, Texas, where TCU is located.
Other names have been rumored, but UT officials didn't confirm any speculation Wednesday. Names of some Vols' targets last season didn't surface until months after Kiffin was hired.
"I don't like to put too many timetables on things of this nature, but I think it goes without saying that everybody knows that we're getting ready to hit a live recruiting period time again (on Sunday)," Hamilton said.
UT interim head coach Kippy Brown -- who called himself a "legitimate" candidate for the full-time job but said he'd be open to staying on as an assistant, too -- said Hamilton hopes to name Kiffin's successor by Friday.
"It's full speed ahead. There's no panic here right now," Brown said. "This is fun. This is what football's about. You have adversity, and you move on. I see this as a great opportunity. It's an opportunity for me to spend this time and help Tennessee through this period, and it's an opportunity for the other coaches on this staff."
Hamilton confirmed that as of Wednesday, Kiffin had only taken defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin -- his father -- and defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and associate head coach Ed Orgeron with him to Los Angeles. That indicated that Kiffin's brother-in-law, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, and longtime close friend and offensive line coach James Cregg were still working for the Vols.
Interpretations of convoluted NCAA rules might be necessary to sort out UT's situation regarding eight high school seniors who enrolled and were scheduled to start college classes Wednesday morning. Several sources said Orgeron told at least some of the players to avoid attending class to keep their recruiting options open, but Hamilton said all eight became "ours" at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Hamilton said he wasn't aware of Orgeron speaking to UT's early enrollees, but he added Orgeron's alleged advice "would be operating without knowledge of the rules."
"After 12:01 on the first day of class, if the student-athletes are here on campus and are enrolled in a minimum of 12 hours, they have matriculated at the University of Tennessee," Hamilton said. "Contrary to what they were told by someone else, that is correct. There's no intention to (release them). They're enrolled at the University of Tennessee."
Hamilton said he met with the early enrollees Wednesday morning, and that all arrived early and in good spirits, considering the circumstances.
"I advised them to go to class, and represent the University of Tennessee in a first-class manner, like we expect our student-athletes to do," Hamilton said. "I don't have a class attendance roster or anything of that nature, but we advised them to go to class, and to hold their heads high."
Brown spoke with some recruits' and current players' parents and expressed hope that he, along with time, could help "massage" some hurt feelings.
Some wounds Kiffin left could take a while to heal, though, judging by the actions of several UT players in Tuesday night's immediate aftermath. Several players shook their head and commented that former coach Phillip Fulmer would never leave them.
"Everybody says it's a business or whatever, and it is, but that doesn't mean this doesn't hurt -- especially when it keeps happening every year," defensive end Gerald Williams said. "We'll do what we have to do to get behind whoever they bring in here, but it's just hard to think about that right now. This just happened, you know?"
Hamilton said he didn't feel personally feel betrayed by Kiffin, but he mentioned the players' plight several times.
"I feel like we gave (Kiffin) a chance, and a head coaching job and a great university with great tradition," Hamilton said. "I do think this, and we were talking about this with some staff members earlier this morning. He made the comment last night that he came to work hard for Tennessee every day, and he did do that. He really worked hard every day. He did some things in his brief tenure here, but if I said I was anything less than disappointed, that wouldn't be true. And it's not so much personal disappointment -- I realize that we've got this stuff in athletics -- but I'm more disappointed for our kids and our fans."
"Our student-athletes, frankly, have had to suffer now through two changes in the last 14 or 15 months. And let's not lose sight of in the end, we can have all the media in here and that kind of thing, but it's really about the student-athletes. These are young men who are going through impressionable times in their lives."
Hamilton said his conversations with Kiffin were polite and direct, and that he never felt misled. Still, the boss pulled no punches in telling Kiffin why he should stay in Knoxville.
"Look, this is the most competitive conference in America, and I thought you were a competitive guy," Hamilton claimed to tell Kiffin. "If you want to be in the most competitive league in America, you need to be here. If you choose to go somewhere else, that's your prerogative."
Kiffin moved on.
UT must do the same.
"We're going to get back up and fight again, starting right now," defensive end Chris Walker said. "Things don't always make sense, but we've been through this before, obviously, and I know how much heart we have as a team.
"Mr. Hamilton's going to go get us a coach, and we're going to play as hard as we can for him."
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