published Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Hurt coach forces UT to adjust: Vols planning for game day without Dooley on the sideline

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — When it comes to coaching, probably nothing is new to John Palermo.

Tennessee's defensive line coach has seen even the rare scenario the Volunteers will find themselves in on Saturday night at 19th-ranked Mississippi State.

After undergoing surgery on his right hip on Tuesday, third-year head coach Derek Dooley will be in the coaches' booth in Starkville, marking the first time since 1992 it's happened with the Vols.

It's not the first time it's happened to Palermo, a 38-year coaching veteran who was the acting head coach for three games at Wisconsin in 1999 when Barry Alvarez underwent knee replacement surgery during the season.

"It's a little bit different," Palermo said after Tennessee's practice on Wednesday morning. "When we did it with Barry, the first game he was in the Mayo Clinic and we talked on the telephone. He had a feed to his deal.

"The next two games he was up in the press box. He pretty much ran the show. On the field I took care of things for him."

Tennessee's coaching staff collectively downplayed the significance of their boss' change of location. All the coaches, including Dooley, communicate over the headset when he's on the field. Though he wasn't at practice on Wednesday, the meticulous head coach already had begun to adjust the plan.

"Coach addressed it with us [Tuesday] about what our plans are and all those things, so I don't think it'll be a lot of difference," offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. "He's going to tell one of us downstairs when to call timeout and take the penalty [or] don't take the penalty. I think he'll have a guy or two designated on offense [and] a guy on defense to basically relay to the officials what his mindset is.

"I think it'll go pretty smooth. We're on the headset with him every week anyway, so it's not like we stand by him on the sideline. I don't think it'll be a problem."

There's no denying, though, that the dynamic will be a different. The Vols stuck to their routine on Wednesday, and Dooley's absence had no effect on the team, which prepared as usual with spirit and enthusiasm you might expect the week before a big game. Though it's rare, head coaches have coached from the booth before Saturday.

The late Joe Paterno coached a number of games, including the now-vacated 2007 Outback Bowl win against Tennessee, from the box for health reasons during his final few years at Penn State, and Sean Payton coached the New Orleans Saints from the box and on the sideline on crutches last year after a collision broke his leg and tore ligaments in his knee.

Charlie Coiner, who coaches Tennessee's tight ends and special teams, coached a game less than a week after back surgery when he was with the Chicago Bears in 2004.

"I couldn't even raise out of a hunchback position," he recalled. "Long story short, they cut me on Tuesday and I was back at practice on Friday. Real similar position where Coach will be in: couldn't get anywhere near anybody.

"If you got jostled, they thought it would ruin the surgery. Coach will be the same way with his hip, obviously. I've been there personally, and it's hard because you want to coach and do everything physically that you did before."

How much Dooley can do physically is a question that won't be answered until Saturday. There's also the inability for Dooley, who can be fiery and passionate on the sideline during games, to get a feel for his team's mentality. It's the aspect of the coaching box that Josh Conklin knows very well.

The Vols' bright young safeties coach normally mans the booth with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and other graduate assistants and interns and has experience coaching from the sideline from his time as the defensive coordinator at The Citadel.

"Coach Dooley has the opportunity to look a guy in the eye and talk to him and see how they're feeling and how they're reacting to him and what they need to hear," Conklin said. "When you get up in the press box, it's a completely different world as far as the emotional part. It's taken out a little bit.

"He'll probably be able to see some things offensively [and] he'll probably be able to see some things defensively maybe that he wouldn't necessarily be able to see. [But] you just have an opportunity to say exactly what they need to hear at the appropriate time, whether that's an emotional get-them-up type speech, or you've got to bring them back down. When you're in the box, you just don't have that emotional connection to the game and how the momentum maybe is turning at a certain point."

Palermo said Dooley has met with Chaney, defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and strength coach Ron McKeefery, who may be able to help with the emotional management of the team, and laid out a plan. Both Chaney and Sunseri believe the normal communication won't change based on Dooley's location. It's tough to know, though, what will happen when the bullets are flying and the cowbells are ringing.

Even Palermo admits that he doesn't have answers to some questions about how it all will work, and he's the coach on staff the most familiar with the odd situation.

"It was just like he was there, so we did it exactly like he wanted us to," he said of Wednesday's practice. "I don't know if it's really going to disrupt it. It all depends on his accessibility to certain things.

"How long can he be in the locker room? How quickly can we get him to the box? Can we get him back? I don't know. I don't have the answers to those questions, but I think he'll try to keep it as consistent as it's been."

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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