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“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.”