KNOXVILLE — While many of their SEC counterparts were learning their postseason destinations and making travel arrangements for bowl games, Tennessee continued its search for a new head football coach to replace Derek Dooley.
With the regular season wrapping up on Saturday, the Volunteers now have more time for more serious contact.
Tennessee officials reportedly took advantage of that on Sunday by meeting with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy one day after his Cowboys finished a 7-5 season with a 41-34 loss at Baylor, though Gundy declined to discuss those reports on his routine teleconference on Sunday night.
"I would never talk about any other jobs or any confirmation of anything that's gone on," he said after the Cowboys accepted a bid to play Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day.
"I was around the house," Gundy replied when asked how he spent his Sunday. "I would prefer to not talk about anything other than Oklahoma State and the bowl game."
The 45-year-old Gundy is in his eighth season as his alma mater's coach, and his offenses in Stillwater typically have been explosive. The Cowboys played in the Fiesta Bowl last season, and despite losing two NFL first-round picks in quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State led the high-scoring Big 12 Conference in scoring. Defensively, though, the Cowboys have finished better than 82nd nationally in total defense just once in Gundy's tenure.
After a 12-1 season in 2011, Gundy, who's also been linked to the vacancy at Arkansas, signed a new eight-year contract in January of this year. Though his 2012 salary is $3.275 million -- which was more than $1 million more than he made in 2011 -- his pay is scheduled to drop to $2.85 million in 2013 before it climbs again, according to a March report by The Associated Press. Gundy's buyout is $3 million, according to that report.
One source did confirm to the Times Free Press that Tennessee officials met with Louisville coach Charlie Strong on Friday, one day after the Cardinals wrapped up a bid to the Sugar Bowl with a road win at Rutgers. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher also remains in the mix. The Seminoles clinched a trip to the Orange Bowl with a 21-15 win against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Saturday night.
As for Tennessee's current team, the focus is in the classroom. Tuesday is the final day of fall semester classes, and final exams begin later this week. Last year, when the Vols also failed to qualify for a bowl game, the team had a poor academic finish, registering a 2.08 collective grade-point average.
"We've got to finish up strong in finals," interim coach Jim Chaney said after the Vols' season-ending win against Kentucky. "Coach Dooley was big on that, and we'll continue to fight [for] his wishes all the way to the end. These young men will finish strong academically if the last thing we do, and we want that."
While some players said after the Kentucky game they'd keep an eye on the search for their new coach, others said the process wouldn't command all of their attention.
"I really haven't been into all the coach searching, and I ain't really focused on that," said linebacker A.J. Johnson. "It's on us as players. I'm going to come in and try to lead the team as much as I can."
Added linebacker Jordan Williams: "We don't really have much power over that. They'll tell us and we'll find out."
The answer could come as soon as later this week.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...