KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's search for a new head football coach appears to be in its early stages.
Yet the university's athletic department got a much-needed financial boost Tuesday from chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Cheek announced that the school would reinvest $6 million of contributions from the athletic department to the university back into the athletic department for each of the next three years.
For a department that posted a $4 million deficit last year and has a dangerously low reserve fund of $1.9 million, keeping the $18 million it normally has donated to the university is very valuable.
"As we face a transition in our football program, I want to make it clear that we support a mission of comprehensive excellence in our athletic department," Cheek said in his statement. "Under the leadership of vice chancellor and athletic director Dave Hart we will do the things required to return our team to national prominence. As we begin our search for a new coach, I have assured Dave that he will have the support and resources he needs to be successful."
Tennessee's athletic department dug itself a financial hole by paying multiple former coaches and facing higher built-in taxes and giving more money to the separate academic side of the university than its Southeastern Conference peers.
A day after Hart said he had a commitment from Cheek to reinvest back into the athletic department some of the money generated by athletics that historically has gone to the university, Cheek told the Knoxville News Sentinel after a Faculty Senate meeting that "we don't have a plan" of how to fund the $5 million buyout for dismissed coach Derek Dooley, the possibly $4 million more for the buyouts of eight assistant coaches and however much a new staff may cost.
On Tuesday, Cheek found that plan.
"The money was committed under different circumstances, and we now need to allow athletics to use these dollars to attain financial stability and invest in the future," Cheek said. "Most of this money has been used for scholarships and fellowships. We will continue to honor these commitments, primarily through private gifts.
"We will not reduce our commitment to students. I know that winning championships and competing at the highest level lifts the national profile of the University of Tennessee. As chancellor, I am committed to winning both on the field and in the classroom."
As for Hart's search, there continues to be plenty of rumors and smoke around former NFL head coach and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden. One CBS Sports report Sunday said Tennessee and Arkansas are pursuing and preparing for a "bidding war" for the former Super-Bowl winning coach. The report, citing NFL sources, also said Gruden has contacted potential staff members and his focus is "more on the college game."
The 49-year-old Gruden began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors in 1986-87, and his wife was a cheerleader at Tennessee. He was in Knoxville in April for Tennessee's annual coaching clinic while the Volunteers were in spring practice.
Though he signed a five-year extension with ESPN last October, Gruden -- who last worked in college in 1991 as Pittsburgh's receivers coach -- could elect to return to coaching, and he'd likely have his choice of college and NFL jobs.
While Gruden may be Tennessee's top coaching target, two other potential candidates made public claims of varying degrees when asked about other openings.
During his weekly news conference, Louisville's Charlie Strong was asked directly Monday if he'd had any contact with Tennessee.
"No, I have not heard from Tennessee," he said with a laugh. "We have two games left. All right? We have two games left. I can't worry about nowhere else, can I?
"We've got to take care of our business here."
Despite Miami self-imposing a postseason ban for the second consecutive year and the Hurricanes under NCAA investigation, Al Golden told the Miami media he's ignoring any talk of other jobs.
"We're not in the business of searching for another job right now," he said. "We made a commitment to the University of Miami, and we want to see it through and we want to get it fixed. We didn't ask for it, but I have confidence in the players and coaches and all the guys that made a commitment to fix this at the end of the day [that] we'll get through it."
Though Hart said Sunday he doesn't have a timetable, he conceded that December was a critical month in terms of finding a new coach, and getting some money back from the university will help that process.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.