KNOXVILLE — Flooding in Middle Tennessee suspended Monday’s start to the Big Orange Caravan, leaving new Volunteers football Derek Dooley with a “light day” in his massive office.
“Light,” of course, meaning only several hours of meetings and telephone calls.
Dooley spent 30 minutes of his “light” day during lunch — a chef’s salad with ranch dressing, cottage cheese and a bottle of water — chatting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press about the past, present and future of his time with the Vols.
Here is a full transcript of that interview.
Q: Now that spring practice has finished, and you’ve had several days to reflect, how much did your program get accomplished during that time?
DOOLEY: “We accomplished a lot this spring, and I was real proud of how it ended. I think it really started, given the nature of the change, with both sides learning each other. It was about us learning about our personnel — our personnel strengths, our personnel concerns — and I feel like we have a real good handle on that. And it was about the players learning about the coaches, too — learning what our expectations are on them, what we’re doing schematically, how we coach them, how we support them. Of all the things, I feel like those are the most important, and I feel real good about both sides of that equation.
“I think we improved significantly, but I also recognize that we have a lot of concerns. We have serious depth concerns, and we have experience concerns. We don’t have a lot of guys that are coming back who have experience that are productive players, and you can’t really fix that in spring.”
Q: As much as you trust new football strength coach Bennie Wylie, is it still frustrating to finally start getting adjusted to these guys and then essentially losing the ability to keep teaching them over the summer?
DOOLEY: “I wish we could start spring now, now that spring’s over, because really the first half of spring, you’re just kind of feeling your way through. But having said that, Bennie is a phenomenal developer of football players, and I feel like that we’ll pick up where we left off. We just have to anxiously await August.”
Q: Obviously the bottom line is that each individual player has specific goals for summer conditioning, but are there any strength and conditioning areas you wanted the entire team to address this summer? Has anything stood out in that way?
DOOLEY: “I think it starts with us having meetings with all of our players, which we had at the end of spring, identifying what we need as far as their weight and their strength levels, and any speed improvements. Certainly they all have some individual goals that are important.
“I think what also goes with that is how much (time) they spend on our systems during the summer — which is all voluntary, and we can’t make them do it, but we certainly have access to everything. How well they go out and function together in working on our plays and our schemes and our coverages and all that sort of stuff, that’s important.
“And I think the third thing that is critical is how well we develop that team chemistry — learning to work with each other and, when things get rough, how well we support each other. And learning when some guys are struggling, how we lift them up. And that’s always the most important thing you can get over the summer.”
Q: What about your summer? Obviously you’ll have to spend the next few weeks on the Big Orange Caravan, but what comes after that? Is it recruiting? Is it film study? Is it both?
DOOLEY: “There’s a lot of opponent work that we’ll begin looking ahead at for next season and getting a jump on, certainly, because I’m new in the league and hadn’t been in it in five years. There’s a lot of things to do schematically to get up to speed on, in terms of what other teams are doing. There’s certainly a recruiting component. We have camps, and we’ll try to get kids on campus, because it’s very important to do that. And then there’s a little bit more. Looking ahead, there’s probably going to be a lot more detail in planning the training camp and the in-season schedule than you normally would have, because we’ve got to put a system in.
“Once you’re in it a couple of years, you tend to get a lot more vacation in the summer.”
Q: What about the recruiting aspect of it? Obviously you can’t mention names, but you’ve only got one public commitment for the 2011 signing class at this point. Other schools in the league have much more than that.
DOOLEY: “Well, certainly we’re still behind in some ways, because of the nature of the changes. Recruiting is about building relationships over time. It’s no different than anything else. I’ve made the comment that the last two weeks in January, we were really out scrambling to complete this year’s class while everybody else was out working on the next year. They were a year ahead of us. So from that standpoint, we started out behind. Our coaches are all new to these areas, new to the high schools and new to the coaches, so it takes some time, and there’s usually some growing pains and mistakes that are made early on, from that standpoint. Getting familiar with who the rising sophomores are, and those sorts of things, that takes time.
“Another important thing is getting these guys on campus. We weren’t here in the fall, so we were never able to meet anybody. So naturally, the prospects want to learn about us, and we want to learn about them, and the only way to do that is face-to-face. Well, we’ve made some progress in that area. We’ve had a lot of guys come through, but those camps are going to be a very important time for us.”
Q: Maybe I’m wrong, but you don’t seem overly concerned about having just one public commitment at this point. Am I wrong?
DOOLEY: “Well ... are we where we want to be? Of course not. But I think given the events that have happened over the last three years, we’d be a little bit foolish to think we’d be ahead of where we are right now. I do think we’ll make up a lot of ground up until the season, and even during the season. But at the end of the day, it only matters who signs. When I got the job in January, everybody said this is going to be a catastrophe of a recruiting season. But we got after it and got together a pretty solid class. I don’t ever panic in recruiting. If we lose guys that we wanted, you move on. You can’t worry about what you don’t have.
“Some guys are saying this, and some guys are saying that. It only matters what they end up doing, not what they say in March or April.”
Q: How much different will your recruiting style be at Tennessee than it was at Louisiana Tech? Obviously you’ll no longer be looking for as many diamonds in the rough. Will you go back to your style as LSU’s recruiting coordinator, or something similar?
DOOLEY: “That’s correct. Everything’s earlier, and I knew that coming in. That’s part of the problem — what we’ll do after signing day this year and the next is completely different than what we did this year, because you have to put your structures in place and learn a little bit more about the culture here.
“Usually your best recruiting class is another year after your first year, because you’re able to start on the juniors at the same time everybody else is. The calendar is moved up. It is different than when we were at Louisiana Tech. Even though we were still aggressive early (at Tech), we knew that most of our players were going to come later. And that was OK. It was OK.”
Q:I suppose all these recruiting questions serve as simply the latest reminder that you’re back in the SEC, huh?
DOOLEY: “I think that’s an SEC issue. I think it’s like this at all the big SEC schools. To the credit of many, they’re created this industry called recruiting that makes a lot of money. There’s a lot of people where that’s all they do — they talk about recruiting, and they get paid to do it. The more listeners they get, the more they get paid. It’s just an industry that’s part of the process now. It doesn’t bother me, but what always concerns you is information getting put out that may cause negative reaction by your fan base and may cause a negative spin to recruits. That always concerns you, because we have no control over that, and many times the information isn’t accurate. That’s the hardest part.”
Q: So despite your comments just now that it doesn’t bother you, you would agree that modern recruiting coverage has caused some new challenges for coaches? Kids seem like they wait longer to make decisions now, and that seems like something that would give coaches fits.
DOOLEY: “Yeah, I think it does. And some of it, we’ve created. Some of the recruiting industry, as I call it, wants kids to wait. They tell them, ‘Wait, and we’ll put you on national TV.’ We’ve created that in many ways, so it’s like we create this, and then we complain about it — you know what I mean? It’s our creation. So that’s just how it is. That’s the nature of the landscape now. I think it causes a lot of problems, sure.
“Probably the biggest problem it causes is giving so much value to these guys, and them thinking it’s going to be easy, and they’re just going to come right in and be superstars right away. I think that’s a very toxic thing. When I recruit them, it’s very important to me that we discuss that it’s going to be difficult. I would rather have someone not come than come under false pretense and then be a problem and want to transfer. That’s the balance.”
Q: Getting back to your current team: What about this quarterback situation with junior college transfer Matt Simms and January enrollee Tyler Bray? How long can you afford to delay naming a starter? Or do you not see it that way?
DOOLEY: “I don’t feel like I need to make a decision of who is going to take the first snap until the week of the game. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t make a decision until then. But I’m going to let it run its course, because here you have two guys who have really been here for just three months. It’s a little unfair (otherwise). It’s not like these guys have been in the program three years. It takes a little time for a quarterback to really grasp the system. And it’s one thing to learn it, but it’s another thing to go out there and apply it. And so if you make too quick a judgment on young people and young quarterbacks and other new people, then you may make some early bad decisions. I’m going to let it run its course, and I’m not going to panic about it or worry about it.
“At some point, we’ll have to make a decision and go with it. And if it’s the wrong decision, we’ll make a change. That’s the only thing I know how to do.”
Q: Some coaches — Steve Spurrier comes to mind — say you can treat quarterbacks like any other position, and rotate them in and out according to their current level of production. Other coaches seem allergic to that concept. Where do you stand on that topic?
DOOLEY: “You just have to do a lot of evaluation. First of all, it’s rare to go through a season where you don’t need your second quarterback. Even if you have a starter, you need two. But at the end of the day, the quarterback’s job is to move the chains and score points and manage the game to where they don’t get you beat. The guy who does that the best is going to get the job. The challenge is, of course, figuring out who’s going to do that before you ever give them a chance. Is it likely, or it possible? Possible is probably the better word. We still don’t know, but it’s possible.
“We’ll have to let them play it out without creating a big controversy.”
Q: What is the latest information you can share regarding recently arrested safety Darren Myles’ situation? Is that still fluid, or have you made a decision regarding his punishment?
DOOLEY: “We handled everything with Darren internally. Darren’s a guy who, since I’ve been here, has done some great things and shown a lot of progress in so many areas. I know he had some issues before, but he’s done nothing but climb on the right path since I’ve been here. But he made a bad decision the night after the spring game, and so we were certainly disappointed in Darren. But we handled it internally with Darren, and with the rest of the team. We didn’t limit some of the things with just Darren. It’s important that the team is a part of all this, too.
“We feel like Darren’s back on track, and we’re going to continue to do things with Darren to make sure he doesn’t slip up again.”
Q: Will that “internal” situation cause him to miss any games?
DOOLEY: “We are not suspending him for a game from that incident. It’s a combination of internal discipline and internal education, and that’s where we’re going with it.”
Q: Other than Myles’ situation, off-the-field reports regarding this team have generally been positive. Do you like the direction this team is headed off the field?
DOOLEY: “I do. I think the team wants to have a good image publicly, I do. I really believe that. I think that many of them are hurt by some of the image and articles that are written about our team, because I don’t think they feel like it’s a good reflection of who we are. Well, what we’ve done is we’ve created that, so we have to fix it. And that’s what I’ve told them. Whatever your brand is, it’s your brand because of something you’re doing. I think our team is very intent of building a good image to where we represent this state and our fan base with class and integrity. And I believe that.
“Now, having said that, we have 100 18- to 22-year-olds. There are going to be some slip-ups, and there’s going to be some mistakes. But I do believe that over time, we’ll have that (good) culture. Now that’s something you can’t change in a month. You just can’t.
“It’s just like raising children. When you’ve had a set of parents who do one thing, and then you have a new set of parents who come in and do something that’s a little different than how they’ve been doing it, you don’t just wake up and say, ‘OK.’ It takes a little bit of an education, discipline and time.”
Q: Do seniors such as Chris Walker, Nick Reveiz and others help you form that positive culture you crave?
DOOLEY: “Absolutely. I love our senior class. We have some good leadership at the senior level. And I think what’s important now is that we build in each class those kinds of leaders. Again, we’ve got some guys with some good leadership qualities, and that’s a matter of channeling that to fit our culture.”
Q: Ultimately, at a place like Tennessee, you’ll be judged solely by wins and losses. Agreed?
DOOLEY: “(Nods head).”
Q: But for this particular team and this particular season, I think it’s safe to assume that any reasonable person would agree that it’s at least temporarily different. To you, what will determine the success or failure of your first season?
DOOLEY: “Number one, I hope that we play with the kind of intangibles that our fan base wants us to play with. And that’s playing with great toughness and effort and competitive spirit and discipline; that we go out there and because of how we play — our team spirit and competitive drive — that we’re a fun team to watch. And then with that, that we show improvement every day and every week that they’re here. If we do those two things, then we’re going to get where our fans are going to feel proud about what we did, and proud that we were Volunteers.
“I think we need to show continued improvement. And we have to this point. We did that this spring, and I hope we get into fall camp and we keep getting better, and then we get into our season and keep getting better. Now that doesn’t mean you lose them all early and win them all late. It’s not all outcome-based. It’s how we compete, all right, and are we showing improvements from where we don’t do things well? If you do those two things, then I think people feel good about your program.”
Q: Last couple of things: How do you feel about possible SEC expansion down the road, and how do you feel about the new possibility of some 5-and-7 teams qualifying for bowl games to fill all the spots?
DOOLEY: “With SEC expansion, we have great leadership in our conference. It’s a simple formula to me. If somebody can come in and bring greater value from an intangible standpoint and economic standpoint, then it makes sense. But to do that, that’s a big number. Mathematically, I don’t know how much the TV contract value has to increase for it to make sense to bring another team in, because you’re dividing the pie up. It’s not as complex in terms of what you need. What’s complex is projecting whether they’ll do that or not. I think our leadership is strong at the conference level, and they’re always looking for ways to make this league better, and I trust their judgment in that.
“As far as 5-7 teams going to bowl games, I don’t think that’s a healthy thing for college football. I just don’t. I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for the bowl system. Even if we were 5-7, I don’t think it would be healthy to go to a bowl game. I think a bowl is somewhat of a reward, and it should be a reward for at least a winning season. I think there’s a good case for 6-6 not being a healthy thing for a bowl.
“But again, those are both bigger issues than what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is make sure we go to a bowl. That’s our objective here.”
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