Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley looks on while wide receivers run a drill during a warmup session prior to a team scrimmage Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Photo by Adam Brimer/Knoxville News Sentinel
Seventeen days from today, the Tennessee Volunteers become Derek Dooley's football team. The prediction from this corner is that conversion is going to be a good thing for the Big Orange Nation for years to come.
Technically, of course, they were his team a year ago. He was the head coach, having gotten the job in January of 2010 when Lane Kiffin abruptly left for Southern California. So the six wins and seven losses Dooley presided over will always officially belong to him.
But as running back Tauren Poole said a couple of weeks ago, "Coach Dooley didn't really know what to expect from us and we didn't really know what to expect from him. All that's changed this year. Everything's easier."
Maybe it will be easier on the field this season and maybe not. Take away road trips to Alabama and Arkansas and Tennessee looks no worse than a slight underdog in any remaining game.
And that assumes that the Vols are only slightly better than last year rather than much improved, which is often the case in a coach's second season.
Then again, let the wrong players suffer injuries -- quarterback Tyler Bray, defensive back Jantzen Jackson or defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who's already banged up -- and the Big Orange could look much more like the 2010 edition that started the year 2-6 rather than the one which ended the year winning four of its final five.
But regardless of UT's record in 2011, Dooley looks to be the blueprint of what the NCAA hopes coaches become throughout its organization. A guy who really believes in the student part of student-athlete. A guy who demands his players be accountable for their actions off the field at all times. A guy who'll quote Shakespeare and use World War II history for motivational tools.
None of this is guaranteed to win the number of games it will ultimately take to keep his job past a fourth autumn. Neyland Stadium won't fill to 102,000 fans just because the Vols lead the Southeastern Conference in All-Academic picks and community service awards. Wins -- lots of wins -- will be expected.
But how you win them could now be as important as that you win them, which is where Dooley could have a significant edge on those many programs that have spent as much time the past couple of decades figuring out ways to skirt the rules as abide by them.
A single quote from California-Riverside president Tim White following last week's retreat called by NCAA president Mark Emmert will be ignored at any school's peril.
Said White: "It's time for tough love in intercollegiate athletics."
That's Dooley's greatest value at this moment. He's tough where the Vols will most need to be tough coming out of a lengthy NCAA investigation, whatever the ultimate penalty delivered them.
As Dooley says in touting his "Vol for Life" program on the back inside cover of this year's media guide" "[This] transforms our young men into men of character, teaching values, human decency and life skills that will create lasting opportunity and happiness."
It will take years, if not decades, to see if Vol for Life fulfills Dooley's dreams for it. If he doesn't win big on the field before then, he may not be around to bask in its eventual success.
But as the NCAA made clear last week, schools expecting to participate in NCAA tournaments and bowl games best be on the right side of both the Academic Progress Rating and the rulebook.
A guy like Dooley will always have his team compliant in both areas. And given enough time to right the wrongs he inherited, he should eventually win big on the field, especially now that the NCAA is intent on tilting the playing field in favor of the rules followers.
For as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: "Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast."
Then again, Shake Daddy also penned "Off with his head" in King Richard III.
And however unfortunate, his latter words far more accurately sum up the fate of SEC coaches who've leaned toward long-term values rather than short-term victories.
Either way, expect Dooley to never waiver from the Shakespeare tenet: "To thine own self be true," which some might say is the ultimate measuring stick for those who win and those who lose.
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 ...