KNOXVILLE -- The rumor first appeared on the website "mrsec.com" late in the weekend. According to anonymous sources -- who else? -- University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley offered to resign after last year's season-ending loss at Kentucky if athletic director Dave Hart would hand him his $5 million buyout.
Confronted with the story during his weekly news conference Monday, Dooley labeled it "absurd."
He later added, "I'd have to be a dumb [rear end] to do that."
Sad but true, this is where we are. Unnamed sources. Unsubstantiated rumors. Unrelenting speculation. Unending stress and strain on Big Orange players, coaches and Hart. The escalated unraveling of a once proud program.
And until a solution is reached -- be it resignation, termination, a contract extension (unlikely) or the dreaded vote of confidence -- this is where we will remain.
It isn't pretty. It isn't productive. It isn't pleasant. But it seems somewhat unavoidable unless one or both parties -- in this case, Dooley and Hart -- reach a swift agreement to conclude what usually is a long, steady decline.
Of course, the Volunteers' decline began long before Dooley hit town. This blame game should include everyone from former coach Phillip Fulmer to former athletic director Mike Hamilton to Fulmer replacement Lane Kiffin to Dooley to even a few players (both past and current) who've been too stupid, stubborn or both to appreciate the opportunity given them by a full-ride scholarship to a storied Southeastern Conference program.
This isn't to say with certainty that the Dooley Era is almost over. The Big Orange Nation may not be nearly as divided as it was when Fulmer was forced out, but at least until the Alabama debacle -- and what game isn't a debacle these days for any forlorn Tide foe? -- there were still more than a few Dooley supporters.
But with the Vols now 3-4 for the season and 0-4 in the SEC (the latter against teams with a combined 27-1 record) heading into this Saturday's game at South Carolina, and with Dooley now 14-18 for his two-plus seasons with the Big Orange and 0-14 against ranked teams, time to calm the masses is almost out.
To his credit, Dooley has resisted the urge to pile much blame on either Fulmer or Kiffin.
"Are the people upset?" he asked rhetorically on Monday. "They should be. ... I don't think any of us expected to be where we are right now. ... It hurts when you are not performing the way you can."
He also repeated a theme he has used more than once the past few weeks, a theme that all coaches, administrators and athletes should accept and embrace.
"They all want to be cheered," Dooley added, "but nobody wants the criticism when they play bad."
Least of all, most unfortunate of all, his immature quarterback Tyler Bray, who dodged the media after the Bama game. Dooley labeled that "unacceptable in our program."
Many will say the Dooley record is unacceptable. At least a few will argue with some justification that terminating him after just three seasons with a $5 million buyout due him is unacceptable for a program already millions in the red.
In fact, the only thing that seems certain at this point may be that this situation seems far more likely to get worse than better in the days ahead.
Especially when even Dooley said of his team's psyche following the Bama blowout: "Their spirit's broken, and it should be."
All of which brings us back to the rumor that Dooley attempted to resign last November. Though probably untrue, if it really did happen, Hart's decision not to pay the $5 million may prove to make him a dumb so-and-so.
Because given Neyland Stadium's empty seats, unsold concessions and the growing malaise that has engulfed the program since the Kentucky loss, that $5 million might prove chump change to what this Big Orange reclamation project will cost from this point forward.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org