KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart has no doubt that Derek Dooley improved the Volunteers' football program after inheriting a tough situation three years ago.
But that improvement didn't show up in Tennessee's record, so Dooley no longer is the Vols' coach.
Dooley was fired Sunday after posting Tennessee's longest run of consecutive losing seasons in over a century. Dooley owned a 15-21 record that included an 0-15 mark against Top 25 teams. Dooley was 4-19 in Southeastern Conference competition and had lost 14 of his last 15 league games.
"This is a result-based profession," Hart said. "You cannot ignore the results at the end of the day."
The Vols' (4-7, 0-7 SEC) must beat Kentucky on Saturday to avoid going winless in SEC play for the first time in school history. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as Tennessee's interim coach for the Kentucky game. Hart said Dooley turned down an opportunity to coach the season finale out of concern that it would affect the players' focus.
Tennessee's 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday guaranteed the Volunteers their third consecutive losing season, the first time they have finished below .500 in three straight years since 1909-11. Tennessee's loss to Vanderbilt marked only the second time in 30 years that the Vols had fallen to their in-state rival.
The Vols will fail to reach a bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78.
"I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future," Dooley said in a statement released by the university. "Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program. During the last 34 months, I've given my all for Tennessee, and our family appreciates all this University and the Knoxville community has given us."
Dooley's successor will become the Vols' fourth coach in a six-year stretch. Phillip Fulmer was fired in the midst of a 5-7 season in 2008 and ended his 17-year tenure with a 152-52 record. Lane Kiffin stayed for just one year before Southern California hired him away. Now Dooley is leaving after only three seasons.
Dooley didn't enter an ideal situation when he arrived at Tennessee in January 2010 after going 17-20 in three seasons at Louisiana Tech. Tennessee went a combined 12-13 in the two years leading up to his arrival.
"Derek Dooley did indeed improve this football program," Hart said. "There is no question about that. He inherited a very, very difficult environment, one that I'm now very familiar with having been here for these 13 months. And quite honestly, he was given a pretty short stick to take into that battle. I think given those facts that he did a good job in a lot of areas in putting a solid foundation under our football program."
Hart said he probably wouldn't use a search firm in choosing his next coach. He considers previous head coaching experience "critically important."
After Dooley led Tennessee to a 6-7 record and Music City Bowl bid in 2010, the Vols went 5-7 last season and closed the year with a 10-7 loss to Kentucky, ending the Vols' 26-game winning streak in that annual series.
Dooley overhauled his coaching staff over the winter, most notably adding Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator after Justin Wilcox left to take the same position at Washington. The Vols were confident they could turn things around this year. Dooley said during the SEC Media Days that "you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."
It hasn't worked out that way. The Vols briefly entered the Top 25 after winning their first two games, but they've lost seven of nine since. Their defense has allowed 37.4 points and 476.8 yards per game to rank statistically among the worst in school history.
"It's real surprising," junior quarterback Tyler Bray said after the Vanderbilt game. "I didn't think we'd have a losing record. I thought we'd only lose a couple of games, maybe two or three, and we've been getting our butts kicked. It's really not fun. "
Tennessee's next coach faces a tough challenge.
The Vols won at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posted double-digit wins in nine of those years, but they haven't earned more than seven victories in any of their last five seasons. This will mark Tennessee's fifth losing season over the last eight years.
The football program is on probation until August 2015. The NCAA handed Tennessee a two-year extension of its probation Friday after ruling former assistant Willie Mack Garza provided impermissible travel and lodging for an unofficial visit by former prospect Lache Seastrunk, who eventually signed with Oregon and has since transferred to Baylor. Garza worked as an assistant on Kiffin's staff.
Tennessee also faces some financial issues as it chooses its new coach. The university's athletic department posted a $3.98 million budget deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year in part because of buyouts it was paying to Fulmer, former athletic director Mike Hamilton, former men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former baseball coach Todd Raleigh. Dooley's contract runs through 2016 and includes a $5 million buyout.
Hart acknowledged that Tennessee was in a "tough position financially," but he said school officials wouldn't let the budget issues be a detriment in hiring the best possible candidate. He also doesn't think the program's recent instability would necessarily hamper his search.
"This is a great place, a tremendous place," Hart said. "We have tradition. We have history. We have a brand that is still meaningful. But we have a long way to go to get back to where we need to be. You can't put all of that on Coach, I don't care if his name is Vince Lombardi or Derek Dooley. We have an obligation as an administration to give our coaches the resources they need, the support they need, intrinsically and extrinsically to back to where we want to be. This will be a collective effort from a lot of people to have us take our rightful place in the Southeastern Conference and beyond."
Hart already has his sales pitch ready to potential candidates.
"This is the ultimate challenge, which competitors embrace," Hart said. "This is the ultimate challenge, for a football coach to come into this league. If you're a competitor and you want to prove your worth, come into the Southeastern Conference. Come to the University of Tennessee. You'll get that opportunity."