published Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Big Orange debate: Can Derek Dooley win?

UT coach Derek Dooley is 11-14 in his two years as head football coach.
UT coach Derek Dooley is 11-14 in his two years as head football coach.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Will Derek Dooley coach beyond this season?

KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley knows the numbers: The University of Tennessee football team is 11-14 in his two years as head coach.

He'll assuredly be reminded of them again this week at the annual Southeastern Conference media days outside of Birmingham, Ala., where one of the biggest topics of conversation will be the pressure on the Vols and Dooley entering this season.

"No matter what your team is, there's a level of expectation that people want you to meet," he said this offseason. "There's some teams, they expect you to win six, and it's maybe just as difficult for that team to win six than a more talented team to win eight and a more talented team to win 10. Every year's hard.

"That's the nature of our profession. This is a very demanding profession, and people have high expectations on them. I've never been to a place where the expectations weren't a little higher than probably what was realistic, but that's OK and that's what makes this business great."

Tennessee hired Dooley a little more than two years ago, luring him away from Louisiana Tech after Lane Kiffin bolted from Knoxville for Southern California.

Dooley, who turned 44 last month, was 17-20 in three years at Louisiana Tech and was handed the difficult task of rebuilding a proud program that was introducing its third head coach in 15 months.

National sports columnist Dennis Dodd wrote that Dooley and interim Arkansas coach John L. Smith are under the most pressure this fall.

"Dooley is still trying to prove himself while still cleaning up after Lane Kiffin," Dodd wrote last month.

Pressure, though, is part of a job that pays Dooley $2 million this season, the third year of a six-year contract worth $12.3 million.

Heading into a year with a lot of promise — UT could return as many as nine starters on each side of the ball when the season opens against N.C. State in the Georgia Dome on Aug. 31 — the recent history of the proud program is painful.

The numbers don't look good under Dooley, considering that back-to-back losing seasons have produced just three SEC wins. After the Vols were a substitution error and a now-amended rule from eight wins in Dooley's first season, the 2011 season was mostly forgettable and full of "scars," as Dooley dubbed them.

UT had its top two offensive stars go down with injuries, finished 116th nationally running the ball, looked inept in third quarters of games and lost three games by 31 or more points.

That bad list doesn't even include the embarrassing season-ending loss to Kentucky, the Vols' first loss to the Wildcats since the Reagan administration and one that has resonated — positively and negatively — throughout the program.

"I think that game had a big impact on every person in our whole organization," Dooley said. "I think it caused a lot of people to really let fear infect their lives and I think it caused others to roll up their sleeves and develop a little more resolve. For the most part, I feel like because of that game, we got better as coaches, we got better as an organization and I think our players became more committed and more understanding of what it takes to be good."

The lessons have been taught; growing pains have been experienced. The built-in reasons — or excuses, to some — of youth and inexperience now are much less viable, so the expectations have increased for a team that had five players chosen by the SEC coaches as preseason first-, second- or third-team selections.

This week, the questions like the expectations will only increase. Is the time now? Are the Vols ready to contend for the SEC title?

Tennessee has not been in the SEC title game since 2007 and has not beaten an SEC foe other than Vanderbilt or Kentucky since 2009. While the need for continuity atop Rocky Top is clear, the need to win now is equally as apparent.

To Dooley, the "ultimate standard" at UT is winning the SEC, with winning a bowl game serving as the program's "baseline." After missing that minimum standard his first two seasons, Dooley feels his third team will be better. He has insisted since January that he's comfortable and confident his roster is the best it's been since he arrived.

From Dooley to his mostly new coaching staff to his team and everyone involved in UT's program, there's an understanding that the Vols must win more games this fall.

"Anybody that has a schedule [for rebuilding] is not dealing with reality," Dooley said. "There's so many things as you build a program that are unexpected or beyond your control. All you can do is continue to adjust and react accordingly.

"I never felt like we've really gone backward, even though it's appeared that way from a results standpoint." he said. "I think the growth has been steady and continual, and when you grow, there's always a lot of growing pains that come with it. There's a lot of times you're going to fall down, and sometimes you'll take a step back before you take two steps forward."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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