Mark Wiedmer: Is Dooley about to give his final media days talk?

Mark Wiedmer: Is Dooley about to give his final media days talk?

July 19th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Derek Dooley

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

At about 10:40 EDT this morning, third-year Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley will be interviewed by 1,100 media types at the annual Southeastern Conference preseason gathering in Hoover, Ala.

Whether any of that group asks him, the biggest question among those folks will be whether Dooley will still be the Big Orange boss this time next year.

Fair or not, that's what happens when your first two seasons end with losing records and the only two SEC East schools you've beaten in those two autumns are perennial pushovers Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

To make that worse, you're only 3-1 against those guys, UK snapping a 26-game losing streak against your program last November while playing a senior wideout at quarterback, a position the willowy Matt Roark hadn't manned since high school.

And the Wildcats have been so disappointing under their own third-year coach, Joker Phillips, that the only coaching seat in the league as hot as Dooley's may be Joker's.

Fair or not, the grim reality is that Dooley hasn't won much of import since his opening news conference in January of 2010.

That's when he deftly dissed predecessor Lane Kiffin with the understated gem, "If you're looking for sound bites and things from me that are going to attack other programs and disparage people, that's just not who I am."

Almost instantly, reasonable Volunteers loyalists came to the conclusion that they had just replaced a jerk with a gentleman, and however painful that transition might prove in the short term, it would deliver long-term benefits.

And there's little question that a goodly number within Big Orange Nation still appreciate former Georgia coaching legend Vince Dooley's youngest son. A recent Times Free Press poll showed that 66 percent of respondents expected Dooley to be the UT coach next season.

Then again, that poll was taken before the runaway Lane Train roared into the Volunteer State earlier this week and convinced Brentwood Academy four-star defensive back Jalen Ramsey to commit to Kiffin's Southern Cal Trojans.

As the lawyer in Dooley would no doubt remind Volniacs everywhere, a verbal commitment is not a signed letter of intent.

Let the Vols do as some believe them capable and finish 10-2 or 9-3, and Ramsey conceivably might still consider UT. The far more discouraging news for the Big Orange Nation was that Ramsey's runners-up were Vanderbilt and Washington rather than the Vols.

Fair or not, when Homestate U can't crack the top three on a four-star recruit in a coach's third year on the job, even Dooley's staunchest supporters have to wince a bit.

But is it fair? Barring a third straight losing season -- something that hasn't happened around Knoxville since 1909 through 1911 and doesn't figure to this season with a schedule that looks like a Gigi's Cupcakes menu -- isn't Dooley due a fourth?

Weren't the messes left behind by the questionable firing of Phillip Fulmer and the unexpectedly swift exit of Kiffin more than enough to buy Dooley at least four years on Rocky Top, if not five?

It's not as if UT has been awful. The Vols arguably were cheated out of a victory at LSU in 2010 and unquestionably cheated out of a Music City Bowl win that postseason against North Carolina. Last year's team flattened a good Cincinnati team before wideout Justin Hunter went down the following week at Florida and quarterback Tyler Bray was injured three weeks later against Georgia.

The Kentucky loss certainly gave the Dooley haters their ammo, but the state of the program before he arrived, the injuries since he got there and his staff shakeup this past offseason also bolster his supporters' arguments that his beloved "process" is working.

The reality is that Dooley's master plan of stronger academics, character and personal responsibility is exactly what the Vols need to build a foundation for future success.

Yet fair or not, even that strategy has reasonably come under fire after Dooley signed Deion Bonner, who stole an iPod during a recruiting visit to Georgia in the winter of 2011.

Everyone deserves a second chance, but many can't help but wonder if Dooley signed Bonner more to save the kid or his own coaching career.

At least to this point, UT athletic director Dave Hart is saying all the right things. He told this newspaper in late spring: "It's easy to be supportive when things are going great, but when the coaches need you the most is when things aren't going great and they're working their tails off to try to turn that corner."

The belief from this corner is that Dooley turns the rebuilding corner this season with an offense that could be the most prolific seen in Big Orange Country since that Manning kid was quarterback and the Vols scored 30 or more points nine times during the 1997 season.

The belief from this corner is that UT doesn't have a certain loss on its schedule and if it can stay healthy can possibly win the SEC East.

Yet fair or not, the flip side of a favorable schedule following two straight losing seasons is that anything less than 8-4 makes Dooley's future foggy. That's when we'll begin to learn just how supportive Hart really is of a football coach he didn't hire.