KNOXVILLE – On Nov. 18, the day former coach Derek Dooley was dismissed, Tennessee vice-chancellor and director of athletics Dave Hart discussed some of the challenges the Vols face as a program in the midst of its third coaching change since late 2008.
He mentioned financial issues, academic problems and the regular change of leadership in the administration in Knoxville.
Now the Vols have at least two more problems to deal with in their second week of the coaching search – Arkansas and Auburn. Arkansas parted ways with interim head coach John L. Smith on Saturday, while the ax fell on coach Gene Chizik at Auburn on Sunday.
The Tigers and Razorbacks join Kentucky and Tennessee as the four SEC teams all in search of a head coach. Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee are expected to run around in some of the same interviewing circles. The race is on.
“It’s very possible that those three schools have several of the same candidates on their list,” said Larry Hartstein, formerly of the Atlanta Jounral-Constitution and now an SEC writer for CBSSports.com. “Each school has its individual needs, but there are certain qualities every school would love to have. Things like SEC ties, head-coaching experience and an overall strong reputation in the profession are what ADs are looking for.”
The regular season ended for some potential candidates last Saturday, making this week one of the most important in the coaching-search process for all of the schools involved. Hart mentioned next week’s National Football Foundation events in New York City as a place where schools and coaches often conduct interviews.
Hart is expected to be there beginning this weekend and could finalize a deal at that point. Tennessee was the second SEC school to dismiss its coach, doing it before Auburn and Arkansas, but one week behind Kentucky. Hart knows it can be a race, but he also must balance that with finding the best overall option.
"I wouldn't put a time frame on it,” he said on Nov. 18. “I think it is more important to get it right, the best person that we can possibly attract … I think it is important to not let the recruiting class come apart, and I don't think it will, but I think we also need to get the right person.”
Hartstein mentioned Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, TCU head coach Gary Patterson, Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino and Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy as names that might receive more than one call from an SEC program.
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden has reportedly already received an offer from Arkansas and is believed to be a candidate at Tennessee as well.
“With Gruden, it’s more of a situation of him finding a place he likes – whether that ends up being in college or the NFL,” Hartstein said. “He has a seemingly endless amount of leverage. He could tell Arkansas that Tennessee offered him $5 million and the Razorbacks would have to offer more to get him. It’s hard to project where he’ll land if he decides to leave his current position, which isn’t a given.”
Ranking the open SEC jobs:
Pros: Top-notch facilities, one of the winngest programs in college football history, passionate fan base, huge recruiting budget
Cons: Will be the fourth coach in seven years, two straight losing seasons, lack of local talent, top skill players might head to NFL early
Names to watch: Gruden, Strong, Al Golden (head coach, Miami), Jimbo Fisher (head coach, Florida State)
Pros: Just two years removed from a national title, great facilities and loyal fan base, strong football tradition, a strong emphasis on helping the football team from the administration, a relatively young and talented roster despite a disappointing 3-9 campaign this year
Cons: Reportedly under NCAA investigation for potential recruiting violations, must recruit head-to-head against Alabama for in-state players
Names to watch: Petrino, Gundy, Strong, Malzahn, Fisher
Pros: Won 21 games from 2010-11, entered 2012 as a national title contender before have a disappointing season, good tradition and facilities, great AD in Jeff Long, passionate fans
Cons: The 2012 team won only four games and will lose many of its top players next year, lack of local talent, must compete against Alabama, LSU and a rising Texas A&M program every season, won the SEC West only once since 2002 and has never won an SEC title
Names to watch: Malzahn, Chris Petersen (head coach, Boise State), Patterson, Strong, Gruden, Art Briles (head coach, Baylor)
Pros: Nowhere to go but up after a 2-10 campaign this season, went to a bowl every season from 2006-10, lower-pressure environment
Cons: Takes a back seat to basketball, facilities that don’t match up in the SEC, tradition of losing, not a strong base of in-state high school talent compared with other SEC schools
Names to watch: Mark Stoops (defensive coordinator, Florida State), Petrino, Kliff Kingsbury (offensive coordinator, Texas A&M), Sonny Dykes (head coach, Louisiana Tech)
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.