published Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Dooley no Kiffin in roots, style

KNOXVILLE — It all sounds a little too familiar, the bio on this 22nd football coach in the University of Tennessee’s long, mostly proud history.

Young, energetic and still sporting a full head of hair. The pretty blonde wife and three children straight out of a Pottery Barn for Kids catalogue. Son of a legendary coach. Protégé and recruiting coordinator for a recent national championship coach.

Given all those comparisons, it would be easy to label Derek Dooley — son of Vince, former assistant to Nick Saban — as little more than a Southern fried version of former coach Lane Kiffin.

That would be wrong.

Much as Kiffin had 411 days earlier, Dooley wore a Tennessee orange tie, white shirt and dark suit to Friday night’s news conference introducing him. That was the final similarity between the jerk no longer here and the gentleman now on board.

“I have a lot of respect for this league, a lot of respect for the coaches in it, and I’ll always conduct myself in that manner,” said Dooley, which presumably means he won’t be falsely accusing Florida’s Urban Meyer of cheating or taunting South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier.

He also took time to single out former UT coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer and Gen. Neyland’s “seven maxims,” which means he probably won’t take any shots at how things used to be around here, though to Kiffin’s credit he was also kind to Fulmer on day one.

Something else the 41-year-old Dooley said should comfort the Big Orange Nation more, however.

Said the former Louisiana Tech coach of his three seasons with the Bulldogs: “So many things as a head coach you’re never prepared for until you’re a head coach.”

And that always seemed to be at least one of the problems with Kiffin. He had never before been a head coach on the collegiate level, much less in the South, where football always will be more a religion than a sport, however wrong or right you view that passion and commitment.

But Dooley has coached in the region as a UGA grad assistant, a Southern Methodist assistant, an LSU assistant under Saban and head coach at Louisiana Tech. Just as important, he grew up in Athens, Ga., between those famed hedges, watching his father both jeered and cheered — far more the latter than the former.

Perhaps that’s why he said, “What’s important is that you sell a university, not one guy.”

Perhaps that’s also why he explained, “Three years ago I had a choice. I could go with Nick Saban to Alabama and stay in my comfort zone, but that really isn’t who I am. So I took a risk and took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech.”

Detractors will say his resume there is nothing with which to land a premier SEC job. At 17-20 he’s still 184 wins behind his father’s 201 victories at Georgia. But he also was smart enough to become the school’s athletic director, which meant the only person who could swiftly put pressure on Dooley was Dooley.

Then again, what else would you expect from a guy who earned both a law degree and an MBA before he couldn’t resist the urge to coach?

And that brightness showed through often Friday night.

Befitting his Southern roots, Dooley responded to a female reporter’s desire to ask a question with, “Yes, ma’am.”

Of his 11-year-old son Peyton he joked, “I’m glad to finally be in a state where the name Peyton will be well-received.”

When UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said he’d offered Derek the job around 4 p.m. Friday, Dooley instantly fired back, “I know it was late.”

No one knows much at this point except that both Dooley and his physician wife Allison, have a lifelong knowledge of the SEC, since both her parents went to Auburn.

But this feels right. Just ask rising senior defensive end Chris Walker.

“I liked the fact that he isn’t going to ask us to trust him, that he wants to earn our trust,” Walker said. “I also like the fact that he wants to embrace our traditions, which is something the old staff didn’t.”

For the entire Big Orange Nation, that might be the best news of all.

E-mail Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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