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Incoming University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport speaks to reporters on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn., after the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to approve her appointment to head the state's flagship public university. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

KNOXVILLE -- Amid conflicting reports regarding the timeline and nature of its search for a new athletic director, Tennessee finally broke its silence with an official statement on the process of hiring a replacement for the retiring Dave Hart.

And according to the university's statement, obtained Thursday by the Times Free Press, don't expect a hire until next month at the earliest.

New chancellor Dr. Beverly Davenport, the interim president at Cincinnati who was approved in December, officially assumes her post in mid-February, and Tennessee remains in the process of hiring a search firm and forming a search committee, according to its statement. 

"Dr. Davenport arrives on February 15 to begin serving (as) UT-Knoxville's chancellor.  She has said that filling the AD position is one of her top priorities. The athletic director serves as a member of the chancellor's cabinet. Dr. Davenport has emphasized the importance of finding the best person for this key role.

"The university is in the midst of a procurement process to hire a search firm to assist with the search.  Once that process concludes, UT will release information about the firm that is selected. At that time, the campus will also announce the members of the search committee and provide a tentative schedule for the search process.

"We hope to announce these details soon. From there -- the search committee and the firm will begin working together to begin the national search. Dave Hart continues to serve as the Athletic Director for the UT-Knoxville campus.  His retirement date is June 30, 2017."

Tennessee has a long-term contract with Parker Executive Search, the firm the university has chosen in the past to land former football coach Derek Dooley, former men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and current baseball coach Dave Serrano.

Dave Odom, the former basketball coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina, told a Knoxville television station last week that the firm for which he's a consultant, Collegiate Sports Associates, had been hired to help Tennessee in its athletic director search.

CSA was involved when Tennessee hired men's basketball coach Rick Barnes in 2015.

According to Sports Radio WNML's Jimmy Hyams, Tennessee's search committee will include board of trustee members Bill Haslam, Raja Jubran, Charlie Anderson; former Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning; senior associated athletic director and Thornton Center director Donna Thomas and Don Bruce, the university's faculty representative to the NCAA and SEC

Public reports have added to the confusion around the search as the timeline has continued to be pushed back from the fall to sometime in January and even well into the spring.

UT Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn, who spent more than two decades in Tennessee's athletic department before the Mocs hired him in 2013, long was considered the favorite for the job, particularly in the eyes of many Tennessee fans.

It's unclear where Blackburn stands as the search lingers past the five-month mark since Hart announced his retirement in August.

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer's growing candidacy crescendoed in a 247sports report earlier this week that his hire as Tennessee's athletic director was "almost done."

Fulmer and university system president Joe DiPietro have spent plenty of time together through Fulmer's service on the President's Council, and the former national championship coach's camp believed his chances of running Tennessee athletics have gone from slim to strong.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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