Roy Exum: What Now At Tennessee?

Sunday, November 18, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When Vanderbilt outscored a dismal Tennessee, 28-8, in the second half of Saturday night’s 41-18 triumph over Tennessee, it became clear to us all that the torch that lights the Vol football program has grown increasingly dim. Flat and simple and to heck with who is to blame, UT is now no longer competitive in the Southeastern Conference so head coach Derek Dooley was promptly fired Sunday morning.

Dave Hart, UT’s Vice Chancellor of Athletics, will immediately start a search for a successor and – if the truth be told – he’s got to come up with a proven “headliner” – an all-star -- rather than take the risks former athletic director Mike Hamilton did when he brought in unproven head coaches like Lane Kiffin and Dooley.

Believe this -- Tennessee needs some sizzle fast. Hart knows it and acknowledged it during a Sunday afternoon press conference. "We're at a tenuous position,” Hart said. “We're at a crossroads in our athletic program. It’s a critically important hire.”

In a league that includes such established stars as Nick Saban, Les Miles, Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier, the chances of finding a quick winner like Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Florida’s Will Muschamp or Ole Miss rookie wonder Hugh Freeze aren’t too good at all. And with Vanderbilt’s James Franklin certain to be offered some prestigious jobs starting next week, Tennessee has to set the bar pretty high this time around.

So who are the hottest guys in America right now that UT might get? Face it, you aren’t going to get Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer or any legend already in the SEC to be a turncoat. So a quick glance at where Tennessee has a chance includes winners such as TCU’s Gary Patterson, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Boise’s Chris Peterson and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald for starters.

Of those, the hottest guy in the country is TCU’s Gary Patterson. He’s on every “Top Ten” list of the best coaches in the country and – now making $2.7 million to coach the Horned Frogs – he could be a “buy” for a man with a big satchel. It’s obvious: Arkansas is already after Patterson in a big way and Auburn – where Gene Chizik still holds on by a thread – would definitely put Patterson on a fast track due to the high standards and deep regard Gary has earned national acclaim for imposing on his TCU players.

Patterson is already legendary, but don’t forget he was an assistant at Tennessee Tech for two years back when the Vols went 16-7 under Johnny Majors (1983-84) and has long admired, and envied, UT’s football success. Patterson even got his master’s degree in Cookeville. Now he’s taken TCU to 13 bowl games in the last 14 years. This isn’t rocket science but, again, load up the satchel.

Winning in the SEC is hard. Alabama’s Saban, LSU’s Miles and South Carolina’s Spurrier are all regarded among the Top 10 active coaches so you’d better get somebody who is already near that level like Richt. Hart was the longtime athletic director at Florida State before he spent four years at Alabama and the last two at UT so he knows better than we do that he’s got to make a major-league hire quickly.

Connect the dots and that might lead to Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. His Seminoles are now 10-1 with Florida coming to Tallahassee this Saturday but Jimbo knows he’ll never get real respect in the BCS poll until he abandons the lightly-regarded ACC and gets in the mix with “the big boys.” C’mon, he beats Maryland, 41-14 on Saturday and who cares?

Fisher played at Samford, where the fact that he was the Division III National Player of the Year in 1987 was overshadowed every day by the SEC. He coached at Auburn two years and then he coached for six years at LSU under Saban. I think he’d listen to what Dave Hart may have to say.

Who else? Pat Fitzgerald has done good things at Northwestern, where his team is now 8-3 after going to bowl games the last four years, but he doesn’t have SEC ties. Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney does but he’s an outside shot, at best. Proven guys like Bobby Petrino and Jim Tressel are available but the laundry bill is pretty steep and UT – with three more years of probation just handed down – can’t take such a dare.

Big Orange faithful quickly mention David Cutcliffe – now at Duke – but his overall college record is 65-67 and right now UT must get some fireball like Patterson or Fisher whose presence will electrify a sagging fan base and quickly enable Tennessee to regain its competitive stance in recruiting.

A troubling factor that Hart must bear is that, with Dooley’s firing, Tennessee’s athletic department is paying an estimated $20 million a year in severance pay to ousted coaches and administrators. At some point UT must eliminate such ridiculous expense because the “buy-out” total is believed to be among the highest in collegiate athletics. Such debt stifles what the athletic department can do.

The other nagging hurdle is Hart will have to be a super salesman with Tennessee’s trail of blemishes over the past five years. Believe it or not, UT isn’t the glimmering jewel it was once regarded to be – to heck with whose fault that is – but a savvy coach isn’t going to see “greener grass” after studying the outcomes of Phillip Fulmer, Kiffin and now Dooley.

Now, take another look at Jimbo Fisher, for example. All he has to do at Florida State is beat Clemson every year. Why take the risk at Tennessee – and that is what it is – when he can glide in Tallahassee as long as he wants? Anybody who coaches in the SEC has got to endure a pounding – week in and week out – and, I’ll guarantee you, a full 50 percent of SEC coaches in conference games are going to lose.

Using the 50 percent rule, any potential hire at UT is going to look down the murderer’s row of SEC coaches who he has to out-think, out-smart, out-recruit and out-charm, and it becomes a daunting task. That is why Dave Hart can’t afford to put a promising unknown coach in charge of the Tennessee football program. There is now overwhelming evidence that won’t work in Knoxville.

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