KNOXVILLE — The underwhelming results left Dave Hart no choice.
After the Tennessee football program's third losing season in three years, the university's athletic director will be looking for his fourth head coach in six years.
A few hours after the Volunteers suffered an embarrassing 41-18 loss to longtime punching bag Vanderbilt, Hart met with Derek Dooley early Sunday morning and informed him he was out as coach with one game remaining in his third season.
"This is not what I wanted, and I don't think this is what we really needed relative to stability versus more transition," Hart said at a news conference early Sunday afternoon.
"We've had 12 presidents here since the year 2000. We now have four football coaches in six years," he said. "We need stability, but we need to find stability through a process that we're engaged in now."
Dooley's tenure ends with a 15-21 overall record and a woeful 4-19 mark in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee's lone SEC win in the past two seasons came in overtime against Vanderbilt last season, and the Commodores avenged that emphatically Saturday night in Nashville. The Vols were in one-possession games in the fourth quarter with Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri and lost each time.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as interim coach as the 4-7 Vols host Kentucky in the season finale Saturday. Kentucky fired third-year coach Joker Phillips after his team lost 40-0 to Vanderbilt earlier this month.
Given the option to coach that game, Dooley declined, with his players' focus in mind.
"I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future," Dooley said in the university's news release late Sunday morning. "Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program. During the last 34 months, I've given my all for Tennessee, and our family appreciates all this university and the Knoxville community has given us."
In addition to creating more coaching turnover, the move will cost Tennessee financially. Dooley is owed a $5 million buyout he'll be paid over the four remaining years on his contract. Chaney, one holdover from former coach Lane Kiffin's one-year tenure, is guaranteed the final year of his contract, in which he was scheduled to make $600,000.
For the seven assistant coaches Dooley hired in the off-season and receivers coach Darin Hinshaw, who signed a new two-year deal in March, there are clauses that make how much Tennessee owes them a fluid number. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri signed a three-year deal worth a total of $2.4 million. Aside from tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Charlie Coiner, who signed just a one-year deal, the other new assistants signed two-year deals.
According to their contracts, those assistants must use their "reasonable best efforts to mitigate" Tennessee's obligated buyout payments for the remainder of their deals by "making reasonable and diligent efforts as soon as practicable" to find new comparable employment.
Should they take lower-paying jobs, Tennessee would have to pay the difference. For example, if a coach who was slated to make $250,000 next season finds a new position that pays him $200,000, Tennessee would owe that coach $50,000. The maximum possible sum in buyout money could reach $3 million, which would make the overall total to change staffs in the vicinity of $9 million.
For a university that posted a deficit of nearly $4 million last year and has a dangerously low reserve fund of $1.9 million -- which Hart said must be solved -- it's a precarious move.
"We're not going to let that be a detriment to securing the best coach we can," Hart said. "We have a $1.9 million reserve, which in the Southeastern Conference is really unheard of. We compete against people who have reserves of $50 to 100-plus million."
Hart said it's a "tough position financially," but added that Chancellor Jimmy Cheek "doesn't want us to be at competitive disadvantages of any nature," whether financial, academic or otherwise.
Tennessee is in a "tenuous position" and a "crossroads with our athletics program," he said, but the university is committed to helping.
"The athletic department has invested heavily in the university, and we should. And now the chancellor is committed to taking some of that investment, athletic-generated revenues, and investing it back in athletics to help us stabilize financially, because that's what we need short-term," Hart said.
"When we get into the new TV contracts, Chancellor Cheek's committed that those new revenues will come to athletics. That's a couple of years down the road. We've got a lot of strategies in place that we have to implement to get where want to go."
Where Hart and Tennessee's rabid fan base wants to go is back to respectability and contention for SEC titles. He believes Dooley did some good things after inheriting an unenviable situation when then athletic director Mike Hamilton hired him from Louisiana Tech 34 months ago.
"This team was close to having a very good season," Hart said. "While the results, which are very, very important, are not what he wanted, not what the team wanted, not what our fan base wanted, Derek Dooley did indeed improve this football program. There is no question about that.
"He inherited a very, very difficult environment -- one that I am now very familiar with, having been here for these 13 months. Quite honestly, he was given a pretty short stick to take into that battle. I think given those facts, that he did a good job in a lot of areas in putting a solid foundation under our football program."
Now someone else will be building upon it.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...