published Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

First-year assistants knew Tennessee Vols situation

  • photo
    University of Tennessee assistant football coach Sam Pittman talks to reporters at the indoor practice facility on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn., in this file photo.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The seven assistant coaches who joined Tennessee's football staff less than a year ago knew the situation into which they were walking.

After two losing seasons, Derek Dooley's Volunteers needed to win games in the head coach's third season.

They know coaching is all about results, and it's the lack of results that led to Dooley's firing Sunday, a scenario his coaching staff knew could happen and hoped to avoid.

"We all knew coming in here -- everybody -- that there was a possibility that this might happen," offensive line coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday morning. "We all knew that. I just chose to believe that it wasn't going to happen.

"It's like I told Coach Dooley on Sunday. I'd do it all again, though, just because of what we've accomplished this year up front and because of the people that I've met. I have no regrets."

While Pittman was not retained through a coaching change at North Carolina after last season, John Palermo just had left Middle Tennessee State when he came to Tennessee last January. The nearly 40-year coaching veteran saw success while at Notre Dame (the 1988 national title) and Wisconsin (three Rose Bowl berths), but he also joined Miami's staff before Larry Coker's final season in 2006. The Hurricanes went 7-6 with a win in a lower-tier bowl after posting a 53-9 record, which included the 2001 national title and another title-game appearance, the previous five seasons.

"We were like a top-10 defense," he recalled. "We won seven games. It wasn't anything like this.

"The change in the coach was, but as far as with everything else, it wasn't even close to this."

Palermo said he wasn't expecting a change when he went to Miami, but he was well aware of Dooley's situation when he took a job with the Vols.

"I knew that Coach Dooley was on the hot seat," he said. "You'd have to be an idiot not to know that, but I thought we could get it turned around, sure. The expectations I don't believe were to the point where you go, 'Oh, we can't reach that expectation.'

"I thought we could definitely meet that expectation. He didn't really even have to be [up front about it]. You know in this profession when you're coming off a couple of so-so years that you're going to have to win seven, eight football games to even have a chance to be able to stay."

Heading into Saturday's season finale against Kentucky, Tennessee's defense has had a big hand in the its 4-7 record and Dooley's resulting ouster. The Vols are last in the SEC in points and yards allowed and in the bottom 10 teams nationally in those categories. What might be the worst defense statistically in the program's history has allowed 37 points or more in all seven SEC games.

"You know the success they didn't have the last couple of years," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "We thought we could come in here and make a difference, and obviously we didn't get it done. As a competitor you always want to look at a situation and feel like you can go in there and make a difference.

"The bottom line, we didn't get it done, and that's what it comes down to."

A former graduate assistant at Alabama, Ansley took a his position at Tennessee less than two months after joining Central Florida's staff. Josh Conklin left a comfortable post nearly a month later. In moving going to the Vols after two years at The Citadel, Conklin went from defensive coordinator to safeties coach.

"I think any time you're in this business there's always the possibility of [this], but obviously when you get into it, no, you don't anticipate this happening and what's going down going down," he said. "I think any time you're a competitor, you want to go try to make it the best of what you can. I thought we were going to come in here and be successful, and it didn't happen.

"When you're in the SEC, it even ramps it up a little bit more. The risk becomes a lot greater because it all comes down to economics. Everybody knows that, and we all understand that and you've got to put a good product on the field and you've got to be successful."

After Saturday's game, Tennessee's coaches will hit the road recruiting. Some will look for their next jobs more actively than others, and some may wait for Tennessee to hire a replacement to see if there's a chance they could be retained.

Running backs coach Jay Graham could remain at his alma mater through a change, and Pittman, at 51, expressed an interest in not wanting to move "another four or five times."

At least two other coaches indicated an interest in being retained by a new coach.

"I don't worry about that," Ansley said. "I'm a good coach. I know a lot of people in the business, so I'll land somewhere.

"Where, I don't know yet, but there will be a lot of opportunities out there, and maybe I get an opportunity to stay here. I don't worry about things that I can't control. I've just got to be ready when those opportunities come and be good in the interview and get another job."

The chances are high there will be some risk involved in that one, too, for Tennessee's assistants.

"We knew coming in what we needed to win," Pittman said. "We also knew that [athletic director Dave] Hart was going to be patient with us. We knew that and we felt like he was, but he did what he felt like he needed to do.

"We understand that. It's part of the business, and the way it all went down was professional. We can all live with the results because it is what it is, and we were treated fair."

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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