With the most inexplicable, embarrassing University of Tennessee football loss of the past 27 years barely 20 minutes old last November, UT coach Derek Dooley attempted to find a ray of hope in that 10-7 defeat at Kentucky.
“At some point, we had to hit a real low point with where this program is,” Dooley said of the Volunteers’ first loss to the Wildcats since 1984, a defeat that cemented Tennessee’s second straight losing season under its second-year coach.
“I hoped we wouldn’t, but it’s inevitable. You’re going to hit a bottom. It’s on the whole organization, and we’re going to begin our climb right now.”
Two hundred and seventy-four days later, a mere six days before the program’s 113th season opener unfolds against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome, many are beginning to wonder if Dooley is the coach to return the Vols from that rocky bottom to their Rocky Top.
“All of us are huge Derek Dooley fans. We’re behind him 110 percent,” said Lee Johnson, a third-generation Tennessee grad and the president of the UT Alumni Association of Hamilton County.
“But we also understand this is a big year for him. In the [Southeastern Conference] you’re expected to win. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair, but that’s football in the SEC.”
Added fellow UT alum and longtime season-ticket holder Joe Haskins, pointing to a massive overhaul of last season’s coaching staff: “[Dooley] inherited a horrible situation. But it always bothers me when you lose so many of your assistants. When you lose them all, it makes you wonder.”
In truth, there are seven new assistants led by defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, a former Alabama aide.
But it is the words of UT booster and alum Mark Smith that may best echo a significant number of Big Orange fans.
“Dooley’s record speaks for itself,” Smith said last week. “Two losing seasons. Zero and 14 when trailing at the half for his career. Nobody needs to comment on anything. You just need to look at his numbers.”
Some numbers are more hurtful than others. Yes, the third-year coach is 11-14 overall in Knoxville. His only SEC wins have come against Vanderbilt (twice), Kentucky and Ole Miss. His average margin of defeat in his 12 SEC losses is 18.4, a number made more troubling by the fact that the Vols’ seven league defeats a year ago came by an average of 19.5 points.
By comparison, Dooley’s predecessor — one-year wonder Lane Kiffin — posted an average margin of defeat of 10.3 points in his four SEC losses in 2009, and that included a 25-point meltdown at Ole Miss. His other three league defeats — including a 12-10 heartbreaker at eventual national champ Alabama — were by an average of 5.3 points.
Yet Dooley supporters can also fairly point out that UT was the only SEC East school last year forced to play all three Top Five league foes in Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, and all three without quarterback Tyler Bray, who was injured.
Beyond that, Phillip Fulmer’s final recruiting class and Kiffin’s lone class have provided little help, leaving Dooley — who wasn’t hired until a couple of weeks before the 2010 signing day — with an unusually young squad with which to compete against the SEC.
“Two years ago, we were going into the season [with an offensive line] that had a combined three starts,” Dooley said last month. “Now we’re going in with a combined 106 starts. I feel like we’ve got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league. That doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. ... It does mean we should be able to compete.”
That dynamic isn’t lost on everyone who follows the program.
“Dooley inherited a mess,” said veteran Knoxville talk show host Jimmy Hyams. “It’s been an unsettled situation ever since he got there.”
But that doesn’t mean he believes Dooley isn’t on the hot seat with UT athletic director Dave Hart, who replaced Mike Hamilton — the man who hired Dooley — a year ago.
“I think that seat’s very hot,” Hyams said. “Dooley has to win this year or else. And I think he needs eight wins. If he wins seven, it means he probably didn’t win a single rivalry game. And if he just wins six, I don’t see any way he stays.”
Yet Hart doesn’t sound like a guy ready to pink-slip his football coach, if for no other reason than Dooley’s buyout is $5 million.
The AD told this newspaper earlier this year: “It’s easy to be supportive when things are going great, but when the coaches need you the most is when things aren’t going great and they’re working their tails off to try to turn that corner.”
Yet Hart also knows he needs a sold-out football program to keep the rest of his $100 million athletic department in the black. According to Hyams, season-ticket sales are down by 10,000 or more for the second straight season.
In what would have been unheard of a decade ago, the school is even packaging tickets to the Alabama and Florida games with other game tickets. Labeled the “Tennessee Triple Option,” it allows fans to select the Florida or Bama game with any two of the remaining five home games for $150. Single tickets also remain for Georgia State, Akron, Troy, Missouri and Kentucky.
“I think it’s a combination of frustration and apathy,” Hyams said. “That and the economy and the fact you can sit in your living room and watch it all on a big-screen TV.”
And just to prove UT isn’t the only one struggling, Florida reportedly returned 4,000 of its allotment of 8,500 tickets. Times are tough all over.
Not everyone is down on Dooley. Alabama coach Nick Saban, who hired Dooley as an assistant at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, said last month, “Derek has done a lot of things to create program stability there. I look for them to have a much better team this year.”
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who was a graduate assistant for Johnny Majors at UT in the 1980s and became a Super Bowl-winning coach with Tampa Bay, also is in Dooley’s corner.
“I’m impressed with what I see,” Gruden said after watching the Vols in the spring and taking part in Dooley’s coaching clinic. “This is an excellent coaching staff. They have a talented quarterback in Tyler Bray, some great young receivers and an outstanding defensive coordinator in Sal Sunseri. They’re doing a fine job of getting Tennessee football back to where it used to be.”
UT history also is on Dooley’s side. Since Gen. Robert Neyland (then a colonel) arrived in 1926, no Tennessee coach has won fewer than seven games in his third season on the job. And few of them had a schedule as easy as this one.
Then again, none of those seven coaches saw his quarterback break the windshield of a parked car while throwing beer bottles and golf balls at it, which Bray apparently did a day or so after Dooley told writers at SEC media days, “I’ve seen a real change in his maturity level.”
Still, Bray is a talented enough quarterback to have thrown 35 touchdown passes in just 16 games so far. The wide receivers — Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson — are all potential all-stars. Sunseri helped run a national championship defense at Bama last season. Finally, 19 total starters (including kickers) return.
“There was definitely a lot of frustration after the Kentucky loss,” said junior offensive lineman Ju’Wuan James. “But we all came together and talked about it and said, ‘We’re on a mission to bring Tennessee football back to where it used to be.’ We’ve worked all off-season to be able to do that.”
Perhaps that’s why Dooley told the SEC’s media, “There’s a nice mood to our team right now that you’re not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore.”
Yet should that kicking around continue, Hart may be forced to give Dooley the boot. It may not necessarily be fair, but that’s football in the SEC.
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 ...