KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley's future as the University of Tennessee's head football coach appears close to an end.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Sunday that Dooley will not return for his fourth season, though a timetable for an official announcement remains unclear. Two websites -- Volquest.com and Govols247 -- reported similar claims earlier Sunday. There was no official word from the university Sunday, a day after the Vols lost to Missouri 51-48 in four overtimes in Knoxville.
"I don't know," Dooley said after the game when asked how the loss would affect his future at Tennessee. "I'm hurting because of the game and the kids. They played their tail off, man.
"There's a lot of negativity, and that comes with the territory. I'm just proud of how they're going out there, and they lay it on the line. We just didn't make the plays we needed to make at the end of the game."
After failing to finish off the SEC newcomers in the second half, the Vols fell to 0-6 in the league for the second consecutive year. The loss dropped Dooley's records at Tennessee to 15-20 and 4-18 in the SEC. The Vols were in one-score games in the fourth quarter with Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri and lost each time.
Despite the losing and the growing speculation about Dooley's future that began after the Vols lost to Mississippi State, Tennessee still can become bowl-eligible with wins against Vanderbilt in Nashville and Kentucky in Knoxville. Coach James Franklin's Commodores earned their sixth win Saturday night with a rally at Ole Miss. Kentucky has just one win this season and fired third-year coach Joker Phillips last Sunday, though he'll coach out the season.
If second-year athletic director Dave Hart chose to make an announcement before the end of the season, it would be the second time in four years that's happened at Tennessee. It didn't work out in 2008, when the program announced Phillip Fulmer would not return on the Monday morning before an eventual loss to Wyoming. Such a move with Dooley would be the second time it's happened to eight of the Vols' nine fifth-year seniors.
Before Dooley's first two seasons at Tennessee, the program last had consecutive losing seasons in 1910 and 1911, and Tennessee last missed bowl games in consecutive years from 1975 to 1978, which were Bill Battle's final two and Johnny Majors' first two seasons as coach.
"We've got to win these last two games to get to a bowl," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said Saturday. "I'm determined for this year to not go like it did last year. If we can at least get to a bowl, that's better than nothing."
Added receiver Justin Hunter, "Basically our mindset's on making a bowl now."
Hart was visibly unhappy outside the Vols' locker room after that loss in Starkville, but he's largely been invisible. He's made no public statements on Dooley's performance or status and prefers to evaluate his coaches at the end of seasons. He has attended a couple of football practices, including one last week.
Should Tennessee decide to change coaches, the university would owe Dooley a buyout of $5 million, paid in equal monthly sums for three years. Dooley's total compensation in 2012 is $2 million, and his contract is set to expire after the 2016 season. Buying out Dooley's staff could add another $2 million to Tennessee's tab on coaching contracts.
Dooley and Hart were unavailable Sunday for comment.
A season where the Vols left the Georgia Dome in Atlanta feeling good after a season-opening win against North Carolina State now appears to be ending in the program's third coaching change in the past four seasons.
"I'm not going sit up here and say it's not hard. It's real hard," cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "We had big expectations coming into this season, and so far we haven't been meeting those expectations. It's real frustrating for the seniors on the team, but we've just got to keep on fighting.
"The seniors on this team have two more games left, and we've got to win these last two."