Tennessee in familiar spot starting another coaching search
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By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee has just launched its fourth coaching search since its last Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.
So that comes to four coaches in a 10-year span.
Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and now Butch Jones. That trio couldn't rejuvenate a program that hasn't won a division since 2007 and hasn't captured a conference title since its 1998 national championship season.
But athletic director John Currie is looking at the glass being half full.
"This is a wonderful opportunity," Currie said at the news conference announcing the firing of Jones . "If you look out at the realm of college athletics, certainly the kind of turnover we've had is not optimal. But at the same time, with a couple exceptions, the old day of having somebody for 15 or 20 or 30 years doesn't really exist anymore."
Tennessee had that kind of stability with Phillip Fulmer, who was forced out in 2008. Tennessee's been searching for it ever since.
Kiffin replaced Fulmer and stayed only one year before leaving for Southern California. Dooley was fired after three straight losing seasons. Jones lasted nearly five full seasons and led Tennessee to three straight bowl victories before everything fell apart this year.
Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) is at risk of going winless in SEC competition for the first time ever and enduring its first eight-loss season in school history. The Volunteers host No. 21 LSU (7-3, 4-2) on Saturday and Vanderbilt (4-6, 0-6) on Nov. 25.
That leaves Jones' successor with quite a challenge in returning Tennessee to SEC contention. Currie says he doesn't plan to hire a search firm to assist him "at this time."
Although Jones signed four straight top-20 recruiting classes - including two that ranked in the top 10 - SEC Network analyst and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik sees a major talent disparity separating the Vols from their top SEC rivals.
"When you have to beat Alabama and have to beat Florida and have to beat Georgia, the bottom line is you've got to have the same guys, and I don't see that (from Tennessee) right now," Chizik said. "I don't think there's any question there's a talent gap."
Chizik said it's important to find a coach with Power Five experience who understands the pressures that come with these types of jobs. Jones had never been a head coach or assistant at a Power Five school before Tennessee hired him. Dooley's only Power Five experience was as an assistant.
CBS analyst Rick Neuheisel, a former coach at Colorado and UCLA, said the new coach must upgrade Tennessee's porous run defense and make sure his offense fits the talent of his quarterback.
"They got stuck in a scheme where they didn't have people that could play it," Neuheisel said. "Even when they had a guy capable of doing something special with his legs (former quarterback Joshua Dobbs), they really didn't incorporate that piece of it in due time in my mind."
Currie can't afford to take his time because other SEC schools also are seeking coaches and could end up pursuing the same candidates. Florida parted ways with Jim McElwain , Mississippi hasn't announced whether it plans to keep interim coach Matt Luke, and the fates of Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin remain uncertain.
Moreover, the addition of a Dec. 20-22 signing period this year makes it imperative to find a coach as soon as possible to preserve Tennessee's recruiting class. Barton Simmons, the director of scouting at 247Sports, says six high school seniors already have backed off from their verbal commitments to Tennessee since October. Simmons said the December signing period would limit the number of prospects typically available to a new coach in January.
"Timing is probably more important than it's ever been in a coaching search right now," Simmons said.
Tennessee's players are trying to avoid being distracted by a coaching search while finishing their season. As the son of Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips, defensive end Kyle Phillips has a pretty good perspective on the situation.
Phillips said with his "mom being an athletic director, I've definitely seen the good and bad of sports, having to hire and fire people. I'm used to it. I definitely can handle it."
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Updated November 14, 2017