Commentary by Mark Wiedmer
KNOXVILLE - Tennessee senior linebacker Nick Reveiz was preparing to return to the field against Kentucky in the third quarter Saturday when he heard UT coach Derek Dooley call for a fake punt.
"We were inside our own 30 [the 24, actually]," Reveiz recalled. "I'm thinking, 'This is either going to be really good or really bad.' But I guess that's why he's paid the big bucks."
This is why Dooley's worth even bigger bucks than the $1.8 million he's made this season: The fake worked.
Freshman punter Michael Palardy gained 16 yards to the UT 40, which not only gave the Vols a first down but momentarily made Palardy his team's leading rusher for the afternoon.
More important, Reveiz said, "It gave us some rest. We'd just given up a long touchdown. That would have been a three-and-out and we'd've been back in there. If that fake had failed, it would have been a big emotional deflator. But that's what made it so great. I don't know a lot of coaches who would have made that call."
Ten months ago there weren't a lot of coaches who wanted to be the Tennessee coach at any salary. Dooley was no better than UT athletic director Mike Hamilton's fourth choice after Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal.
But if this 24-14 victory over Kentucky should teach the Big Orange Nation anything beyond the fact that the Wildcats are their closest thing to a sure bet in Division I, it's that Dooley is more than a pretty bright guy with a cute family and a famous father.
In overseeing UT's fourth straight victory and delivering the school a bowl bid, the 42-year-old former lawyer has successfully begun the program's long road back from mediocrity.
Or as Hamilton said during postgame interviews, "With these four straight wins and a bowl bid, we're selling hope to our fans."
For the average UT fan, the one not privy to Dooley's practices and freshman quarterback Tyler Bray's passes, there was no hope at the end of October.
The Vols were 2-6 overall and 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference after an Oct. 30 loss at South Carolina, a record so depressing that Dooley said, "A lot of people were talking about us being the worst football team in Tennessee history."
But Dooley never said that. Instead, he said what he'd said every day from the icy January night he first took the job. He said if his players would continue to trust in the process, the results would come.
Finally they did. Blessed with a November schedule that appeared to have been made by Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, the Vols crushed Memphis (50-14) and Ole Miss (52-14), then gutted out a pair against Vanderbilt (24-10) and UK.
But it was how Dooley coached during UT's 12 total games that left the biggest mark on his players.
"He never changed; he never flinched," said senior defensive end Gerald Williams. "Coach Dooley just stayed consistent and stayed confident. They've got the right coach here."
Added offensive tackle Dallas Thomas: "He never gave up on us, no matter what people were saying. He just kept us focused. Now we're going back to a bowl game."
The Big Orange Nation will only believe it has the right coach if next year is better than this year and the year after that is better still. This season the Vols achieved the minimum that fans will accept when they won their last four to finish 6-6 and go bowling.
The fans want to return to the top of the SEC, which Tennessee hasn't achieved since 1998.
And even Dooley knows that trick plays have a way of evening out.
"Every time I call something like that, it's tough," he said. "I let it slip out of my mouth and then I go, 'Why did I do that? Why did I do that? Why did I do that? Oh, good, I'm glad I did that.' But that's the life of a coach."
At least that's the life of a coach willing to trade high risks for high rewards.
"I just admire Coach Dooley so much," Reveiz said. "He never hesitated in making that call. He's not out there with marbles in his mouth. He was all in. That's why he's the guy to take this program to the next level."
The last time someone said that about a new UT coach was 1992, when former athletic director Doug Dickey used that phrase to describe his reasons for promoting Phillip Fulmer to the top spot. Six years later, the Vols were national champs.
If Dooley can keep the marbles out of his mouth as this program moves forward, there's no reason to believe he can't win it all in his sixth season. At the very least, he should never again have one of his teams labeled the worst in UT history.