Derek Dooley needs a big season to save his job.
The fan base isn’t happy. He’s working for a new athletic director. He won one SEC game in 2011. Simply Derek Dooley needs to win – and win right away.
For 37 days — a stretch that spanned from the final game of the 2011 regular season all the way to Jan. 3 of the new year — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley remained silent. He was off the grid, unable to address the mounting media requests that were piling up after one of the most disappointing losses in UT history.
When Dooley finally broke his silence, he had to address a laundry list of issues, the majority of which were negative in nature. He concluded the discourse with a message squarely directed at his fan base, a loyal group that has endured plenty of adversity since Phillip Fulmer’s firing in 2008.
“I can tell you this: I’ve never been more excited about an offseason in all of my coaching career,” Dooley said. “As disappointed as I am about how the season ended, I’m equally optimistic about our team and our program heading into next year.”
For Vol fans, time wasn’t enough to heal the wounds inflicted by their team’s 10–7, season-ending loss to Kentucky. It wasn’t just that the Vols had lost to the Wildcats for the first time since 1984, and it wasn’t just that it kept UT out of a bowl game for the second time in four years. It was how the Vols lost that left an unsettling feeling that still hovers above the program and above Dooley’s head going into the 2012 season.
UT’s new athletic director, Dave Hart, was just two months on the job when it happened, but he quickly understood the gravity of the situation.
“I had a negative reaction. People should have had a negative reaction,” Hart said in December. “There would have been something dramatically wrong if there wasn’t a negative reaction to that particular performance on that particular day. Now, you’re into the unacceptable category.”
Avoiding the “unacceptable” will keep Dooley in good graces with his new boss. How Hart defines “unacceptable” in Dooley’s third year at UT, though, will differ significantly from what it meant during the first two seasons.
Asked if there were a certain number of wins that Dooley, who is 11–14 after two seasons at UT, needs to hit this year in order to feel comfortable with his future at Tennessee, Hart bristles, saying that he will “never do that.” He does, however, acknowledge that the Vols aren’t young anymore, and that type of excuse won’t be acceptable if they are to have a similarly lackluster season in 2012.
“That assessment, it goes deep,” Hart says. “It’s not an inch deep and a mile wide. It’s an honest assessment of all the prongs that you’re developing to try to have a championship-level program.”
Championship-level programs don’t often have the kind of staff turnover Dooley and the Vols experienced throughout the offseason. They also don’t have a star player drawing all sorts of negative attention for his inability to conform to standard rules and procedures.
Tennessee, unfortunately, had a heavy supply of both before the first of April, and those are the challenges Dooley has to overcome before the Aug. 31 season opener in Atlanta against NC State.
Starting with wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who was said to have retired but was paid like he was fired, and ending with secondary coach Terry Joseph, who left for a similar position at Nebraska just three weeks before the start of spring football, the Vols lost seven of their nine on-field assistant coaches from 2011. The two holdovers — wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney — are working with different position groups than they were last year.
The second coach to part ways with Dooley, former special teams/tight ends coach Eric Russell, told the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review that he didn’t leave UT for Washington State because it was close to his hometown of St. Maries, Idaho. Rather, Russell was concerned about his long-term future.
“I think at Tennessee, it was going to come down to how many games you won the next year, and unfortunately nobody’s got a crystal ball,” Russell told the newspaper.
Dooley, aware of the “sinking ship” perception that came with the methodical exodus, says he thinks the turnover is a “healthy thing.”
“I think when you go through a tough year it’s hard on the coaches and hard on the players,” Dooley says. “Sometimes change is a welcome thing and everybody is going to have that and they’re going to walk into their meeting room with a new face, a new personality and it’s a good opportunity for the players to start over from scratch. They can put away anything that they wish they hadn’t done in the past.”
The past season was good for wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, but the past few months have been bad enough to warrant non-stop speculation about his future with the team. According to multiple media outlets, a confrontation with a strength coach during the offseason kept Rogers away from the program for nearly a month. He returned in time for spring practice but was briefly suspended for another infraction and held out of one practice before returning to the team yet again. Dooley denies that he was giving preferential treatment to Rogers.
“I don’t worry about (him being a distraction),” Dooley says. “And if he is, then we handle it just like any other player.”
Dooley’s disciplinary tactics won’t be what matters once the Vols start playing football. Winning can truly fix things in a hurry at Tennessee, which is coming off one of its worst-attended seasons since the expansion of Neyland Stadium.
The Vols return 17 starters, a group that includes promising quarterback Tyler Bray and all of five offensive linemen — but does not include standout wide receiver Justin Hunter, who returns after missing most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL. Under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, the Vols are going to play out of a 3-4 base defense, something Dooley says he’s wanted to do for years.
The schedule is as favorable as it’s been in years. The Vols get rivals Florida and Alabama at home, and they swap last year’s games against LSU and Arkansas for Mississippi State and SEC newcomer Missouri.
While certainly at the top of the list, wins and losses aren’t the only variables that factor in when predicting Dooley’s future with the Vols.
Dooley left Louisiana Tech to become the Vols’ new coach in 2010 only because UT had just lost Lane Kiffin after one season. The program, for all intents and purposes, was in shambles. It clearly wasn’t a quick fix, and Dooley agreed to a contract that reflected it. His six-year deal stipulates that he would be owed $5 million if he were to be fired before Feb. 15, 2013. It drops down to $4 million for 2014 and 2015.
UT is still making monthly payments on Fulmer’s $6 million buyout. The athletic department, which boasts a budget that tops $100 million, made just $14,447 in net income during the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to BusinessofCollegeSports.com.
“We’ve got to get football healthy,” Hart says. “But that’s not all on Derek Dooley.”
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 SEC Preview Annual.
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