KNOXVILLE - You can't say Derek Dooley doesn't understand the importance of winning football games in the Southeastern Conference.
As Tennessee's second-year coach noted Wednesday afternoon in discussing his first recruiting class that was his staff's and his staff's alone: "This class is probably the most important class for me and our staff. You don't just get 10 years at these jobs, so you better have a pretty good first recruiting class."
But defining "good" is where Dooley may become a refreshing change from most of his coaching brethren. Under Dooley's definition of "good," old-fashioned, if sadly antiquated [in some corners] values such as character and intelligence are nearly as important as size and speed and athletic strength.
Stunning, huh? And he's not even coaching Vanderbilt. He's at UT, which takes the sport so seriously that it plays in a 100,000-seat stadium and annually approves a $100 million athletic budget that is overwhelmingly dependent on football's success.
Yet blessed with both a law degree and a medical doctor for a wife, Dooley described his recruiting philosophy as, "Minimizing risk."
He detailed it by describing the five factors he looked for in each of the 27 players the Vols signed for the upcoming season:
1) Size and speed (Hey, he still realizes this is the SEC).
2) Athletic skill set.
3) Intangibles such as toughness, effort, discipline and passion for the game.
"You're never going to find someone who has all five," Dooley said. "Everybody has some deficiencies somewhere. But a couple things really stick out to me about these guys. Number one, I think this is the first time I've ever been involved where every single player who committed never flinched. ... I think that is a real testament to the quality of people we had and the type of recruiting we do.
"Second, if you look at the academic makeup of this class, they're averaging over a 3.0 (GPA) core and a 20 ACT. I know we're charged with winning games, but being able to get guys to stay the course is just as important."
Before Vols fans worry too much about this formula undercutting the Big Orange's chance to succeed in the SEC, consider the 2007 class signed by Phillip Fulmer, then later coached for a season by Lane Kiffin.
"I think only five guys out of that [highly-ranked] class played any significance," said Dooley, knowing that the remaining players either quit, flunked out or were thrown out for disciplinary reasons.
"It doesn't matter what your [recruiting class] ranking is. It only matters what you do over the next four years."
Which is where Vol For Life comes in. Dooley began the program last summer, then placed former UT and NFL player Andre Lott in charge of it. It's goal is to promote character education, life skills, career development and spiritual growth.
Without naming names or pointing fingers, Dooley has said one of his chief reasons for founding Vol For Life was, "to change the culture here."
Regarding Lott, a member of UT's 1998 national championship team, he said, "Hiring Andre to coordinate our VFL program is one of the many steps we have taken to reshape our culture into one that produces not only great players and great teams, but more importantly, greater men."
Dooley has enough integrity to note there was one rather large ulterior motive.
"You want it to help you recruit guys," he said. "[But] by me selling that program, if that doesn't interest a guy, I don't care how good he is, I probably won't enjoy coaching him. So maybe he should go elsewhere. That's another way to minimize the risk by what you sell. If I only sold the NFL, there are a lot of other issues that I'm going to have to deal with that may not go so well."
Admittedly, it's a fine line. Dooley's first season was a 6-7 worksheet that could have been 8-5 without two highly controversial losses over officiating calls. A second 6-7 season might also be forgiven as he attempts to alter UT's past culture.
But by this time next year he'll be expected to begin building a championship team, the past coaching sins of Fulmer and Kiffin no longer an acceptable crutch, though this year's Top 15 recruiting class suggests he'll need no excuses by the 2012 season.
And should those minimized recruiting risks maxmize the Vols' victory totals by then and beyond, the Big Orange Nation just might embrace Dooley becoming a Vol for life.