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Tennessee AD Dave Hart can't afford to miss on next basketball coach

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart must prove he has Tennessee headed in the right direction after firing basketball coach Donnie Tyndall

Yes, you’ve read the news correctly—Tennessee is preparing for another coaching search.

On Friday, Tennessee terminated the contract of first-year basketball coach Donnie Tyndall. In a statement, the university said it fired Tyndall for cause after determining the coach “is highly likely to be found responsible for serious (e.g., Level I and/or Level II) violations of NCAA rules” stemming from his tenure as head coach at Southern Miss. That means the Vols, which are one year removed from a berth in the Sweet 16, are looking to hire their third head basketball coach in as many seasons.

These days, coaching searches are as common in Knoxville as renditions of Rocky Top. The Vols’ eventual replacement for Tyndall will be the school’s eighth football or basketball coach since 2008. In recent years, the university has been allergic to stability. The rocky situation begs the question: What the heck is going on in Tennessee’s athletic department?

The basketball problems started in 2010, when then-coach Bruce Pearl found himself knee-deep in NCAA trouble. Pearl had been hugely successful in a six-year run in Knoxville, reaching the NCAA tournament in each season. But his NCAA transgressions forced the hand of then-athletic director Mike Hamilton, who fired Pearl in the spring of 2011.

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Hamilton’s last hire was Cuonzo Martin, then the coach at Missouri State. When Hamilton resigned in the summer of 2011, Dave Hart took over as Tennessee’s AD. Martin never caught on with the Tennessee fan base. It didn’t seem to matter that players loved Martin, or that the coach led the Vols to their first Sweet 16 since 2010. Fans still signed a petition midway through the season begging for Tennessee to re-hire Pearl. They seemed to forget the program already had a coach.

After Tennessee lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16, Martin’s three-year record (63-41) was the best of any SEC coach not named John Calipari or Billy Donovan. How did Tennessee respond? By offering Martin a half-million dollar raise, making him the eighth or ninth highest-paid coach in the league. Martin skipped town that April to take the head coaching job at Cal, a lateral move at best.

The No. 1 priority for Hart in replacing Martin was to steer clear of a coach with NCAA baggage. Pearl and former football coach Lane Kiffin had left a sizeable NCAA cloud lingering over Knoxville. Eventually Hart zeroed in on Tyndall, who had been successful at Southern Miss but had previously been in trouble with the NCAA at Morehead State. In a press conference Friday, Hart said the school’s research turned up nothing with regards to Southern Miss.

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“I think we vetted that very well,” Hart said. “It was very similar to any search I’ve ever been involved in, in terms of the vetting.”

But Tennessee’s vetting failed. In November, Jason King of Bleacher Report wrote that the NCAA was investigating Tyndall’s tenure at Southern Miss. According to Ben Frederickson of the Knoxville News Sentinel on Friday, Tyndall’s termination letter from Tennessee includes an admission by the coach this month that he deleted emails related to the NCAA investigation. Such action constitutes a Level I violation. Per Tyndall’s contract, Tennessee could fire him for cause for a Level I or II violation and avoid a $3 million buyout.

The technicalities of Tyndall’s termination matter little right now. For Tennessee, it’s obvious that hiring Tyndall was a mistake. The Vols needed stability. They needed a clean slate. The school got neither of those things with Tyndall, who led the Vols to a 16-16 record.

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How badly did Tennessee whiff on Tyndall? Kiffin actually spent more time as a Tennessee head coach than Tyndall did.

Hart spent nearly 40 minutes answering reporters’ questions on Friday in Knoxville. He admitted that, in hindsight, hiring Tyndall was the wrong move for Tennessee. Hart said a coach with NCAA baggage would not be considered for the Vols’ job moving forward. He also said that he will hold himself accountable for all of his hires.

“I bear the responsibility for any and all hires that I make and have made at every job I have had,” Hart had.

Hart may have inherited a less-than-ideal situation, but he has made some questionable moves. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—pay Martin market value and then whiffed with Tyndall. And he has caught flack from alums and boosters alike for the school’s decision to roll back the Lady Vol nickname for most of its women’s athletic teams.

But Hart has also shown an ability to make a smart hire, as he did in football with Butch Jones. He’ll now be tasked with a second chance to find a competent, clean coach to lead the men's basketball program. History indicates the Vols are not willing to break the bank for a big-name hire like Wichita State's Gregg Marshall. Thus, Tennessee finds itself searching for another mid-major diamond in the rough like Pearl. Names like Rick Byrd of Belmont, Will Wade of Chattanooga and Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood will be hot on Tennessee message boards. But the question is whether a successful coach would venture to a school where stability is a thing of the past.

The Vols are teetering on the edge of mediocrity right now, and many wonder whether Tennessee basketball can get back to its consistent success under Pearl. Hart’s next hire will be crucial for the future of the program. He must get this one right.