Wiedmer: Hold off on judging Derek Dooley till next season

Wiedmer: Hold off on judging Derek Dooley till next season

November 15th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley speaks to the press during an event.

University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley speaks...

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- It was one of those lines that swirl through most college football coaches' heads at one time or another, even if they never publicize it.

But from his orange pants up, Tennessee's Derek Dooley isn't like most coaches. So as he tried to put last Saturday's embarrassing 49-7 loss at Arkansas behind him during Monday's press luncheon, he echoed what many in the Big Orange Nation have been thinking ever since that depressing defeat dropped UT to 4-6 overall and 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference.

Asked about the importance of beating Vanderbilt this Saturday night in Neyland Stadium -- a loss would end the Volunteers' bowl hopes -- Dooley said, "I'm sure it will change how a lot of people feel externally, about me and where we're headed, and that's OK."

So where are they headed under the second-year coach?

Who knows?

Those still in Dooley's corner believe he was handed a near-impossible situation made more daunting by crucial injuries and some of the worst luck anybody could imagine. They believe he's done about as well as anyone not named Gen. Robert Neyland could have.

After all, the program's been pretty much on a slow but steady downward spiral ever since it lost to LSU in the 2001 SEC title game. There have been no SEC championships since 1998, no BCS bowls since the season after that, and should the Commodores win Saturday, UT will have suffered its fourth losing season in seven years.

Not since the school posted seven losing campaigns in nine years from 1903 to 1911 have the Vols struggled this much for this long.

But that's assuming they lose to Vandy, which is a far less certain possibility if Tyler Bray is able to play quarterback.

Those who criticize Dooley begin with the contention that you have to have backup plans when a crucial player such as Bray goes down, as he did after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand against Georgia.

And, yes, if Dooley ever expects to elevate the Big Orange to that lofty status enjoyed by Alabama and LSU these days, depth is important at every position, especially quarterback.

But also ask yourself where Stanford would be without Andrew Luck. Or just look at the Colts without Peyton Manning. Bray may not yet be Perfect Peyton or Luck, but he was similarly important to these Vols.

To recycle one of my favorite lines from Georgia State coach Bill Curry: "The game has changed. It now comes down to this: Can my quarterback beat your defensive coordinator?"

Bray's absurd passing ability and the ridiculous receiving skills of Justin Hunter gave the Vols that puncher's chance against most opponents. Without either player for the past four SEC games, UT has been outscored 138-23. With only Bray against Florida and Georgia, the margin was 53-35.

Yet even as the Vols have fallen to 0-6 in the SEC for the first time ever, there's a silver lining for both Dooley and the program going forward. Should anything happen to Bray next season, backup Justin Worley already will have gained valuable SEC experience.

Those critical of Dooley call him Coach Doolittle, Coach Fancy Pants and the like. They point to his never having beaten a team that finished with a winning record, though Cincinnati will take care of that argument this season.

Just for argument's sake, the Vols whipped the Bearcats 45-23 when both Bray and Hunter were healthy.

This isn't to say Dooley has done all he could, even if he is the Vols' third coach in four seasons and he can count all of seven seniors on this week's two-deep chart, and just four of those are starters.

By his own admission, his infatuation with gimmick plays probably needs reassessing. Or in his words, "Our trick plays aren't looking too good."

Nor have the Vols often seemed as organized as they should be with substitutions and the like, which would seem a direct reflection on the head coach.

Beyond that, for all the talk about the mess Dooley inherited, Vanderbilt's James Franklin is the Commodores' third coach in three years. And Vandy didn't enter this season coming off two straight bowl seasons, as UT did. The 'Dores -- now 5-5 overall and 2-5 in the SEC -- went 2-10 both last season and in 2009.

So for those who say they're more impressed with Franklin in his first year than Dooley in his second, it's a fair argument.

Yet Franklin also has eight senior starters and a redshirt junior quarterback in Jordan Rodgers, whose older brother Aaron just might be the best QB on the planet right now.

This doesn't mean the Vanderbilt outcome isn't important to Dooley's future. Or that he doesn't need at least eight wins next year to calm his fan base.

But Dooley was also right on Monday to say, "This one game is not going to impact our program for the next three years."

No, the entirety of next season is what will most impact how people feel externally about Dooley and where the program's headed. And that's OK.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.