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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / New Tennessee athletic director Danny White speaks Friday afternoon during his introductory news conference in Knoxville.

New Tennessee athletic director Danny White spent the first few weeks of 2018 as the biggest villain in Southeastern Conference football.

After the University of Central Florida topped Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl following the 2017 season, White declared his Knights the true national champions. Auburn had defeated Alabama and Georgia, the two teams that vied in that season's College Football Playoff title game, during the regular season, so White not only announced a championship parade in Orlando but that a national championship sign would go up at UCF's Spectrum Stadium.

There would be backlash from Alabama and SEC fans, but White didn't back down then and still hasn't.

"There was more than one national champion that year, and I look forward to a better postseason," White said Friday during his introductory news conference in Knoxville. "I think we're on the right track to getting it, and I think it will be awesome for college football. It will be awesome for Tennessee. It's kind of funny that I'm on the other side of that conversation now and have been for a few hours, but if I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing.

"What those kids accomplished that year needed to be defended, and in the role I was in, I felt like I needed to fight for them. Undefeated seasons are really tough to do, and I would do it again for any of our teams here. It's just who I am. I believe in student-athletes and the true spirit of competition."

UCF's rise to national prominence in football under White continues to be reflected by a 41-8 mark the past four years, but White now has the chore of helping rebuild Tennessee, a program that has sustained eight losing records in the past 13 seasons. There is no doubting Tennessee's investment in White, as the 41-year-old son of Duke athletic director Kevin White and the younger brother of Florida men's basketball coach Mike White has a starting salary of $1.8 million.

His salary doubles what predecessor Phillip Fulmer was making and is noticeably higher than the nearly $1.1 million White was earning at UCF, and that jump likely helped counter the fact Tennessee could be facing significant NCAA sanctions due to the actions of former football coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff.

"If everything was humming here and going great, I wouldn't be standing here," White said. "I was really proud and excited about what we were building from the ground up at UCF, but this isn't ground up because it's been there. There is a lot of building that needs to happen. There are challenges with the NCAA investigation, and there are challenges with not being where we want to be competitively in football, but that excites me and that energizes me."

Asked whether he needed assurance that NCAA sanctions wouldn't be crippling, White said: "I don't think a university and an athletics department and a football program with this much history and this much going for it is going to be crippled by something. I think it's a matter of how long it will take to climb out of it."

Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman explained Friday that she retained the Parker Executive search firm last Saturday and that the firm began to compile a list. She spoke to White on Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning via Zoom before flying to Orlando on Wednesday night along with university president Randy Boyd.

"We were confident the position would be attractive and attract robust interest, and we were immediately proven correct," Plowman said. "Our search firm presented us with an impressive and diverse list of prospects, but it was clear who the top candidate was."

White admitted to appreciating the aggressiveness Tennessee displayed in pursuing him, but now it's White who must be aggressive in landing a football coach who can reverse the trend of predecessors Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Pruitt, whose eras yielded a combined 66-69 record. While he plans to move quickly on the search, the process began Friday with White meeting with Volunteers players.

"Before anything else, I am extremely student-athlete-centric," White said. "Call the student-athletes at UCF, and they'll confirm it. Every single decision we make will start and stop with their best interests. That's what we're going to be all about, and if we do that, we're going to see greater and greater success that will help them become the best version of themselves as an athlete and as a student and as a person."

Tennessee's last coaching search was the most chaotic in college football history, as AD John Currie was rebuffed by Dan Mullen, Mike Gundy, Jeff Brohm and Dave Doeren before getting fired and replaced by Fulmer, who revealed his retirement plans Monday, which opened the door for White. Currie's gaffes were heightened by a fan base that pushed back at his decisions and mocked his moves by flooding Twitter and repeatedly painting messages on a campus rock.

Given that Tennessee's last search gained national attention for its insanity, White wants everyone to come together and respect things moving forward.

"I've never worked at the big brand place until now, and I actually like the fact that the brand needs to be polished a little bit," White said. "It needs to be elevated to where it was not that long ago, and I'm really excited about the prospect of doing that and bringing Vol Nation together from a positive support standpoint.

"It's not just the big donors, the medium-sized donors or the season-ticket holders. It's everybody who cares about this place. If you're upset or negative, text your buddy. Don't put it on social media. Let's build some positive momentum."

 

Lawrence in portal

Defensive back Key Lawrence, the highest-rated member of Tennessee's 2020 signing class, entered the NCAA transfer portal Friday. Lawrence, who prepped at Nashville's Ensworth, played in all 10 games this past season for the Vols, compiling eight tackles and a pass breakup.

 

Coby commits

Northeast Mississippi Community College receiver Andison Coby committed Friday to Tennessee's 2021 signing class. The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder picked the Vols over scholarship offers from Arkansas State, Austin Peay, Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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