KNOXVILLE -- Though officially off-limits for media interviews Monday, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray couldn't resist having a little fun at the reporters' expense.
Knowing at least a few of us ink-stained wretches were still lingering about in the indoor practice facility after talking to the Volunteers who were available, Bray shouted loud enough for all to hear: "I just got a text from my dad. He wanted to know if I knew that they'd just fired Coach [Derek] Dooley. This is sooooo unbelievable."
Bray laughed as he spoke. It's good to know that at least one person within the football program can find something funny in this rapidly deteriorating situation.
Off the record, in hushed tones urgent enough to make Watergate's Deep Throat proud, there seems to be a near consensus that Dooley's days in charge of the Vols are now down to less than two weeks, his probable pink slip to arrive within 48 hours of the end of the Kentucky game on Nov. 24.
Not that Dooley's acting as if that's the case.
With a bowl bid still claimable should his 4-6 Vols win out against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Dooley said Monday that athletic director Dave Hart "told me he had not made a decision, whether we go 6-6, despite what all the reports are."
Then again, maybe Dooley's in denial as he nears the end of his third season, because he also said of his UT future, "I didn't ask him that."
Sometimes you don't ask the question because you don't want to know the answer.
So Dooley walks around spouting comments befitting an attorney, which is what he was before he decided to pursue a career that can make you even more disliked than a lawyer.
For instance: "I can give you compelling arguments why I should [return], and there's plenty of compelling arguments why I shouldn't."
Clarence Darrow couldn't have said it better.
Yet until Saturday's 51-48, four-overtime home loss to Missouri -- which entered the game with the SEC's 12th worst offense among 14 schools -- a lot of Vols fans struggled with that very notion. Neither keeping him for a fourth season nor canning him after three delivered the kind of solution that brings easy sleep.
Possibly embracing President Obama's four-year mantra of "We inherited a mess," Dooley and his incredibly shrinking fan club have similarly campaigned for patience, their argument not without merit.
But every coach eventually reaches that moment when his team's supporters either believe in him or believe it's time to move on. Assuming Dooley really is gone sooner than later, Missouri will prove his point of no return.
Missouri wasn't just a winnable game, it was a game already won, the Tigers down 28-14 on the scoreboard after trailing 384-64 in offensive yards at intermission.
Yet somehow UT lost in four overtimes, though Dooley officially lost the fans at the end of regulation when he allowed the clock to run out rather than try to avoid overtime.
So now we're in a mess of Dooley's making and Hart's choosing, the athletic director's protracted public silence only making matters worse.
"My parents are on the phone: 'What's going on up there?'" said junior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James, whose talent is proof that Dooley the recruiter could do grand work on occasion. "We're just trying to win these next two games."
What's going on is a circus, soap opera and reality show all rolled into one. And we're all a part of it -- media, players, coaches, administrators, fans, all of us -- until Hart opens his mouth concerning whether to close the Derek Dooley chapter in the UT football history book.
For now, at least until or unless another loss arrives, Hart's hesitation is arguably admirable. To cost the current Vols players a bowl game because you wanted to please the fans can make you as much a part of the problem as the solution, something no administrator wants.
Yet it's also been said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. If Hart doesn't already have a replacement lined up and the Next Big Thing heads elsewhere before Dooley is dismissed, such procrastination from the top could torch UT football for years to come.
Comment Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org