KNOXVILLE — On his Twitter account, Daniel Gray posted what every Tennessee football fan was wondering on Sunday around noon.
In the wake of coach Derek Dooley's dismissal, the Volunteers are back in the market for a replacement just three years after consecutive coaching changes.
"Can't wait to see who our new coach is," the freshman cornerback posted shortly after Tennessee's players were informed of the change by Dooley and athletic director Dave Hart late Sunday morning.
A few hours later, Hart sat down for his news conference and set the stage for what will be a crucial search for Dooley's replacement.
"It's a tough day for our football team," he said, "but we will now move forward in a search process with a goal of securing the best coach we possibly can to come and lead the football program at the University of Tennessee. You've heard me say this before: this is a great place, and this is a tremendous place. We have tradition, we have history, and we have a brand that is still meaningful.
"But we have a long way to go to get back to where we want to be."
Who Hart tabs could go a long way in getting Tennessee's program back among the Southeastern Conference's top programs, where the fan base believes it should be. In a league loaded with talented players and quality, successful coaches, Hart is looking for a candidate that understands the rough-and-tumble SEC. His choice, he said, will have head-coaching experience and integrity with the NCAA extending Tennessee's probationary period two more years to 2015 on Friday.
"This league, it's a different world," said Hart, who spent three years at Alabama before taking the job in Knoxville last September. "This is the ultimate challenge for a football coach, to come into this league. If you're a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come into the Southeastern Conference, come to the University of Tennessee and you'll get that opportunity.
"Obviously we want a coach who knows how to be successful [and] who's had success and knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the Southeastern Conference and can appreciate and identify with what that takes."
Unlike previous athletic director Mike Hamilton, Hart won't use a search firm to research and handle background checks on coaches. He'll instead rely on some of those he's known and trusted during his nearly three decades in athletic administration. Though he didn't put a time frame on a hire, Hart said December is a "critical, critical month" when pressed further about a timetable.
"There are a lot of variables, and no searches are ever identical in nature," he said. "Those variables will be, like I said earlier, some coaches won't want to engage until after their seasons are over. You may have othes who are in a different scenario that may be able to talk to you.
"I think it's more important to get the right person, the best person, that we can possibly attract. If you had your druthers, you'd want to do it quickly. But I don't think the landscape necessarily plays into that in every case."
In addition to the concerning financial situation of the athletic department, Hart spoke Sunday of some competitive disadvantages, specifically some relating to academics. He said those issues that have long hindered Tennessee's athletic department would be eliminated. Hart has been in discussions with chancellor Jimmy Cheek about those situations, and it appears the athletic and academic sides of the university are working together toward a common end.
Hart said his pitch to candidates in that regard will be "we're correcting every one of them" and expects coaches to wonder openly if they'll be given enough time given Dooley was let go three years after taking the job two weeks before signing day and inheriting a decimated roster.
"I think the new coach is going to ask me that question early on in our conversation," he said. "Four coaches in six years? I'd ask it. Is three years enough? I think that's a fair question.
"Well, I think you have to look at the results," when asked what his answer would be. "Derek would be the first one to tell you that. I think that's a good question, and we'll have to address that."
The Vols have had three consecutive losing seasons for the first time in more than 100 years. Five of the past eight seasons have ended in losing records. Tennessee missed bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since the late 1970s.
Despite all that losing and the Vols' continual downward slide among their SEC peers, Hart firmly believes the Tennessee job remains an attractive option for potential candidates.
"I don't know that it's lost its luster so much as ... we haven't had success for five or six years," he said. "We've had five very difficult years, but I look at that from a positive perspective. I always put myself in the other role [and] trade places.
"I'm the candidate, how would I view it? I would view it as a heck of an opportunity to come in and get it turned around. If the support is there, and it is, I would have every level of confidence that I can turn it around."
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 ...