KNOXVILLE - Amid reports that he won't return for a fourth season as Tennessee's football coach, Derek Dooley said at his regular Monday news conference that athletic director Dave Hart told him he's not made a decision regarding his future as the leader of the Volunteers' program.
"I didn't ask him that, but I did ask him a lot of things," Dooley said. "We talked very frankly about it. He told me he had not made a decision, whether we go 6-6, despite what all the reports are.
"Either the sources are wrong, or Dave wasn't being forthright with me, and I have no reason to think Dave's not being forthright. He's an honest man, he's always been honest with me and I've appreciated how he's handled everything about this. I really have."
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told the Times Free Press on Sunday that Dooley is not expected to return, but with the Vols still needing wins against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to reach bowl eligibility, a timetable on an official announcement is unclear.
Saturday's quadruple-overtime loss to Missouri in Knoxville dropped Tennessee to 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference for the second consecutive season, and the Vols have lost 13 of their last 14 conference games. Dooley is just 15-20 in two-plus seasons in Knoxville, and he's won just four SEC games in his tenure.
Dooley said his addressed his football team before Monday morning's practice regarding his status but declined to reveal what he said to his players.
"I'm not going to talk to you guys about what I tell the team," Dooley said. "I think when you look at all this stuff ... yeah, I addressed it. They're getting banged up on their phone the way my kids were getting banged up and the way my wife was getting banged up [on the phone].
"Everybody said I was fired, and I didn't even know it. I'm sitting there working on Vandy, and I'd already talked to Dave. You've got to come home and address all that with your family, and you've got to address it in the morning with the team."
The players that did speak with the media after Monday's practice prior to Dooley's news conference issued the same message: Monday was business as usual.
"He didn't have too much to say," said left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson. "It's just the usual: 'You fought hard, there were some things you could have done, but we've just got to move on and get better.' It was business as usual.
"We don't really focus on that too much. We're just going to do what we've got to do. I think that Coach does a good job not bringing that outside stuff inside of our circle."
Added right tackle Ja'Wuan James: "He talked to us and let us know that we need to focus on these next two games. There's a lot of negative outside, in the media and stuff like that. We're just going to try to keep it in-house and win these next two games."
Players said the spirit of the team remained high during practice, and it appeared that way when a few offensive linemen were having a friendly debate about who's homestate produced the most talent.
"I think the irony in all this is the team, we beat up the young kids so bad on their behavior all the time, and they're the ones handling all this better than anybody," Dooley said. "There's no negativity on the team. There's no mean-spirited comments. There's no gossip. I'm proud of them for doing that. We probably all ought to learn from them a little bit."
Dooley said the hardest part of his current situation is dealing with his family "when they're seeing things are contrary to what their dad's telling them," though he acknowledged it's part of being a big-time college football coach.
When asked if he felt he'd be back as Tennessee's coach next season, Dooley said he was worried about Saturday night's trip to Vanderbilt.
"I can't make that decision," he said. "I can give you compelling arguments why I should, and there's plenty of compelling arguments why I shouldn't. It's not going to be your decision, it's not going to be a bunch of these sources' decision -- it's Dave and the Chancellor, and it's their decision.
"I can't control what they think. We've had a lot of good dialogue. I think he's got a good handle of how I do things in our program, where we are and why we're not getting the results we want. You move on and live with it."