KNOXVILLE -- A whirlwind week of University of Tennessee football coaching news temporarily halted Wednesday, as first-year head coach Derek Dooley continued his pursuit of a defensive coordinator.
A Clemson athletics department spokesperson confirmed news through head coach Dabo Swinney that defensive coordinator Kevin Steele planned to stay with the Tigers.
Steele, a former UT player and assistant coach, contemplated over (and possibly accepted) an offer to return to his alma mater for a substantial raise, but Swinney and Co. kept him in the fold.
Dooley was on the road Wednesday recruiting and speaking with assistant coaching candidates, and he wasn't available for comment.
Two sources said UT was willing offer up to seven-figures annually for the "right" defensive coordinator -- but the department wouldn't complain if the best available candidate to accept the job demanded less money. UT men's athletic director Mike Hamilton often speaks about the "line-item" business of coaching staffs, and the only price figure restriction is the combined sum.
"I hate to be so cold about it, but I look at this as a line-item, and you're trying to pay for experience and the coaches that they'd hire and all those kinds of things," Hamilton said. "The way I look at it is, 'OK, we're going to pay the head coach this, and what does the rest of that line-item look like for their assistant coaches?'"
Hamilton, as he said he would, claimed to ask every potential UT head coaching candidates to questions about their collections of assistants: "Who would you bring with you, and what are the dollars necessary to hire the best coaches you can bring to the University of Tennessee?"
"I challenge them," Hamilton continued. "We now have that model out there to hire the best possible coaches they can hire. In some cases, you might have a head coach that has a higher salary, and the pool would be less for the assistant coaches."
Dooley's contract hasn't been released to the media yet, but his total financial package per year is believed to be in the same range as predecessor Lane Kiffin's -- approximately $2-2.5 million per year.
UT's assistant football coaches last season made a combined $3,325,000. That was the highest of all public institutions in college football (private schools don't have released that information, and most don't).
Dooley said his strategy won't necessarily mirror Kiffin's though. In other words, Dooley said the best fit for his UT program won't necessarily be one widely regarded as the nation's best.
"This whole 'putting together the best staff in the country' and all this, well, every staff can't be a headliner to me to make a good staff," Dooley said Friday at his introductory press conference. "A staff is a team, and each member of a staff brings strengths, and each member of a staff has things that maybe they don't do as well. It's no different than assembling a football team, and so what I'm more concerned with is who wants to be here?
"Hopefully, at the end of the day, we're going to have one heck of a team."
UT needs a defensive leader, though, and none have emerged. Multiple sources told The Times Free Press that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart turned down a lucrative offer to join the Vols, and reports from South Carolina media say Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson did the same. UT has shown at least some interest in TCU's Dick Bumpas, but Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson said earlier this week that his defensive coordinator would stay put.
The rumor mill quieted Wednesday, in large part because most sources close to the program stopped discussing names. Several UT officials haven't been pleased with the national perception from so many names being thrown out in the media that resulted in public denials of interest -- even, in some cases, when UT claimed privately it hadn't offered that coach a job.
It didn't take Dooley long to gain his first verbal commitment that hadn't previously pledged to Kiffin's UT class.
Justin Hunter -- a 6-foot-4, 175-pound wide receiver from Virginia Beach, Va. -- committed to Dooley after a late Tuesday night in-home visit.
Rivals.com considers Hunter the nation's fourth best receiver and No. 75 overall prospect. He had been committed to LSU for months but never lost interest in UT, even after the coaching change.
Scouts have compared multi-sport star Hunter to Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Hunter has wowed coaches at camps with his speed and leaping ability, though some have suggested he'll need time in the weight room to translate those skills onto the major NCAA Division I level.
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