Vols back to the drawing board

There have been more than a few forgettable days on the football field for Tennessee over the past few years.

Wednesday was a day the Vols would like to forget on the coach search trail.

Louisville's Charlie Strong and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy both said thanks, but no thanks, after receiving contract offers from Tennessee. The rejection by Strong was especially tough to swallow for Tennessee after athletic director Dave Hart flew up to Louisville to meet with Strong on Wednesday and felt confident he had his man. But later Wednesday night, Strong informed Tennessee that he was staying put at Louisville.

The other name that had been linked to Tennessee's search was North Carolina's Larry Fedora, but sources told ESPN.com that Fedora would be reluctant to leave North Carolina after only one season.

So where does Tennessee go from here?

Better yet, why is a program with Tennessee's tradition and resources whiffing on so many of its top targets?

The first thing to keep in mind is that this whole process is eerily similar to what happened the last time the Vols went looking for a coach. Derek Dooley was maybe their fourth choice when he was hired in 2010. To be fair, there was an ongoing NCAA investigation at the time, and Tennessee was trying to fill the position in January after Lane Kiffin bolted for USC. It wasn't the best time to be looking for a coach so close to national signing day.

But this time, there is no NCAA cloud hovering, and Hart has known really since the second week of November that he was going to be in the market for a new coach.

The longer this process drags out and the more the Vols get rebuffed, the more unpopular Hart becomes with the Tennessee fans.

When you look at how far the Vols have fallen -- four losing seasons in the past five years -- this is a hire Hart absolutely has to get right. If he doesn't, there's no telling when Tennessee will sniff the upper echelon of the SEC again.

It's no secret that the state of Tennessee doesn't produce the type of homegrown talent that Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all do. That's an obstacle that can be dealt with. The Vols won a national championship in 1998 with a roster full of players from neighboring states.

A bigger issue right now is the apparent disconnect between the academic and athletic communities on campus. Prospective coaches are well aware of that disconnect, no matter how real or perceived it is, and it's working against the Vols as they search for their fourth head coach in the past six years.

At this point, Tennessee would be wise to regroup and take a long, hard look at who's out there.

Hart hasn't won over many fans in Big Orange Nation with the way this whole search has gone down, and some of the big-money boosters are embarrassed that it has played out the way it has.

These are indeed rocky times on Rocky Top.