Vols' search for Dooley replacement continues after Gruden, Strong say no

Associated Press • Dec 6, 2012 at 5:59 AM

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s coaching search is nearly three weeks old, and the Volunteers still haven’t found someone to accept the challenge of turning this program around.

Tennessee contacted ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, but it was announced Nov. 30 that the former Super Bowl-winning coach wasn’t interested. The Volunteers then pursued Charlie Strong, who said Thursday he had turned down their offer and would stay at Louisville.

Of the four Southeastern Conference schools to make coaching changes, only Tennessee hasn’t filled its vacancy. The Vols are trying to replace Derek Dooley, who was fired Nov. 18 after going 15-21 overall and posting a losing record in each of his three seasons.

Kentucky selected Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops last week to replace Joker Phillips. Arkansas and Auburn made their picks Tuesday. Arkansas lured Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin, while Auburn hired Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn.

Strong indicated Tennessee contacted him Friday, the day after Louisville closed the regular season with a Big East-clinching 20-17 victory over Rutgers. Strong said he met with a Tennessee official Monday and received an offer Tuesday. Strong said his relationship with his players and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich caused him to stay.

“Some people will say, ‘How do you not go to the Southeastern Conference?’” Strong said. “But I keep going back to (that) it’s about relationships.”

Tennessee officials have said they wouldn’t comment on the dynamics of the search until it was complete, but athletic director Dave Hart noted the challenges facing the program at his news conference announcing Dooley’s dismissal. Hart also said at the time that he had no timetable on when he’d want to pick a coach and that it was more important to get “the best person that we can possibly attract.”

The Vols are seeking their fourth coach in a six-year stretch, not including offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s stint as interim head coach in the 2012 season finale after Dooley’s dismissal. Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008. Lane Kiffin stayed one year before USC hired him away. Dooley’s tenure lasted three years.

“We haven’t had success in five to six years, and we have had five very difficult years,” Hart said. “I look at that from a positive perspective. I always put myself in the other role. Trade places. (If) I am the candidate, how am I viewing this? I would view it as a heck of an opportunity. If the support is there — and it is — I would have every level of confidence that I can turn it around.”

Hart had indicated at that news conference that head coaching experience was “critically important” and that he wanted a coach who “knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC.”

This search’s length has subjected Tennessee to some unwanted national attention. The hashtag “TurnedDownTennessee” was trending on Twitter late Wednesday night.

But a long search sometimes pays off.

Vanderbilt’s James Franklin was hired about three weeks after the firing of Robbie Caldwell and emerged as the front-runner only after Malzahn withdrew his name from consideration. Nick Saban took over Alabama’s program about five weeks after the firing of Mike Shula and nearly a month after Rich Rodriguez turned down the job.

Hart can only hope his search turns out equally well.

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