Commentary: UT must put Hart and soul into next football hire

8:34 AM, Nov 19, 2012   |    comments
UT Athletics Director Dave Hart
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David Climer, The Tennessean

Firing Derek Dooley was easy.

Now comes the hard part.

This is what Dave Hart signed on for when he became Tennessee's athletics director in September 2011. Even then - two losing seasons ago - Hart had to recognize Dooley was not the long-term answer for UT football. He knew this day was coming.

Hart can't afford to get it wrong. The Vols have fallen. Can Hart help them get up?

Vol Ball has lost its way in the SEC and no longer is a major player in the national conversation. When you go through three football coaches in five years - and your teams compile a 27-34 record during that span - you have become an afterthought.

A couple of weeks ago, there was concern that Hart would be allowed to make the call on Dooley's continued employment in a vacuum. At the time, other UT administrators appeared to be distancing themselves from the decision, leaving it entirely in Hart's hands.

But it turned out to be a no-brainer. With six losses in the last seven games, a 0-7 SEC record and the 41-18 debacle at Vanderbilt on Saturday night, Dooley was toast. All Hart had to do was call the meeting and turn it over to the attorneys to work through the fine print.

Moving forward, this is Hart's baby. Sure, a handful of major financial players will voice their opinions and Hart's higher-ups on UT's organizational chart might drop a hint or two, but it's his call. He'll set the agenda. He'll manage the interviews. In time, he'll make the hire.

And he'd better get it right. A football program can survive one bad hire, maybe even two. But after Lane Kiffin and Dooley, it's three strikes and you're out.

It's not his nature, but the first thing Hart should do is make a very public overture to Jon Gruden. Because he's not currently coaching a team (Shades of Kiffin, perhaps?), there is no breach of protocol in approaching him before the season is over.

Hart should make it clear money is no object. That accomplishes two things. For one, it appeases the elements of UT's fan base that are infatuated with Gruden. For another, it forces Gruden to proclaim his interest or lack of interest.

After that, Hart can work the angles. If Gruden is not in play, Hart can go about his business via the usual back channels.

One very important thing Hart has done is clear the deck. At a press conference on Sunday, he stressed that any concerns, real or imagined, about academic deterrents to UT's success have been addressed. Such concerns have been part of the conversation since it became clear Dooley's days were numbered.

"We have some competitive disadvantages that have been identified, that everyone in our campus has been working to overcome together, " Hart said. "We have some academic competitive disadvantages that we are eliminating."

And then there's the financial side. Dooley's ouster costs UT an arm, a leg and a few other body parts. Dooley's buyout is $5 million. If all his assistant coaches are fired, it potentially would cost UT another $4 million-plus, although some of that cost would be reduced if the assistants were hired elsewhere.

But Hart vowed that financial concerns would not impact the coaching search.

"We are not going to let that be a detriment to securing the best coach we can," he said.

Still, times are tough. Because of major facilities upgrades as well as having to pay off departed coaches and other department personnel, UT currently has a reserve of only about $1.9 million, which is far below much of the SEC competition.

Dooley's firing and the buyout that now kicks in only add to that financial burden. The numbers are staggering. Here's the breakdown of what Dooley has cost and will continue to cost UT for his three years of employment:

• $5.7 million - combined salaries over three years.

• $5 million - buyout for termination.

• $500,000 - amount UT paid to Louisiana Tech to buy out Dooley's previous contract.

• $286,782 - UT's payment to the IRS for withholding taxes on Dooley's contract with Louisiana Tech.

• $50,000 - bonus for making the 2010 Music City Bowl.

• $100,000 - payment for team's achieving satisfactory academic progress over two years.

That adds up to $11,636,782, or an average of $3,878,927.33 a year.

Based on those numbers, Dooley is the sixth-highest paid college football coach in the nation this season. Only Nick Saban ($5.3 million), Mack Brown ($5.25 million), Bob Stoops ($5.05 million), Les Miles ($4.15 million) and Urban Meyer ($4 million) make more in compensation from their schools.

For those keeping score, the combined records of those five coaches this season is 46-7. Dooley's record is 4-7.

All told, UT paid $775,785.46 for each of Dooley's 15 victories over the last three seasons.

There's more. If all Dooley's assistant coaches are fired at season's end, it potentially would cost UT another $4 million-plus, although some of that cost would be reduced if the assistants were hired elsewhere.

But as he is kicked to the curb, let's give Dooley credit. He leaves the program better than when he took over from Kiffin - although not to the extreme some would have you believe.

Depending on what the offensive threesome of Tyler Bray, Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter decide about the NFL draft, the roster is a bit deeper and marginally more talented. But there are still some positions where the roster still needs a major upgrade.

Dooley's biggest accomplishment was to slow the attrition and instill a level of discipline that was absent under Kiffin. The Vol For Life program he helped create should carry over to the next regime.

Like Hart said on Sunday:

"He inherited a very, very difficult environment. ... Quite honestly, he was given a pretty short stick to take into that battle. Given those facts, he did a good job in a lot of areas in putting a solid foundation under our football program."

Now it's up to Dave Hart to find someone to build upon that foundation.

Identifying and hiring the right person for the job is a monumental task. Time will tell if Hart is up to it.

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