Mark Wiedmer: Dooley making Hart's decision much easier

Mark Wiedmer: Dooley making Hart's decision much easier

October 29th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley closing watches the minutes of the Vols 38-35 loss to South Carolina.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Sounding like a kid playing cowboy who doesn't realize he's out of bullets, Derek Dooley made the following statement during SEC Football Media Days:

"There's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."

A little more than three months later, Dooley's Vols have been kicked around like cans within the SEC, standing 0-5 in league play for the third time since Dooley arrived three years ago.

But did the coach ask to revisit that claim after Saurday's narrow 38-35 loss at South Carolina? Did he say he understands why a majority of Vols fans -- 60 percent in one online poll after the SC defeat -- are ready to kick him to the curb? Does he offer any tangible reason for the Big Orange Nation to feel better about 2013 than 2012?

Not exactly. Instead, Dooley oddly said, "We could still have a really good season."

When? In 2013? In 2017? Whenever Jon Gruden takes over? When UT leaves the SEC to join the ACC, or the AFC West, which might be easier?

Did he mean to say, "We could still have a really good basketball season," which Cuonzo Martin's Vols could?

The downtrodden fan base at Kentucky might view a potential 3-5 SEC mark as a really good season, especially since the Mildcats have won more than three league games but once since 2000 (4-4 in 2006) and have won as many as three but thrice in the last 13 years, but a (potential) 3-5 conference mark should never be viewed as really good at UT.

Then again, Kentucky actually has a better record (2-11 to 1-12) over its past 13 SEC games than the Vols. And the league's most certain coaching opening at the close of the year appears to be Joker Phillips' spot at UK.

In case you were wondering, Phillips has been on the job the same number of years as Dooley -- 3.

Does this mean it's finally time to kick Dooley out as head coach of the Vols? Does it mean he must fire first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri if he remains the Big Orange boss for a fourth season?

Not necessarily on either count.

First, UT is definitely better than this time last year. Against an SEC that may be stronger from top to bottom, UT's five league losses to date have come by an average of 13.5 points. A year ago the average margin of defeat through their first five league losses was 18 points.

Beyond that, three of last year's first five SEC games were at home. Three of this year's first five have been on the road. Even the biggest Dooley hater would have to grudgingly admit to some progress in that.

As for Sunseri, you wonder who's to blame for this nightmare of 522 yards and 41 points allowed on average through five SEC losses?

Dooley, who hired him away from Alabama? Tide boss Nick Saban, who quite possibly couldn't wait to unload him? UT athletic director Dave Hart, who came from Alabama and may have encouraged Dooley to hire him? Or Sunseri, who just may have reached his Peter Principle (rising to his level of incompetence) by moving from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator?

Or, just maybe, all the talk of a year of adjustment in moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 set is on the money. As an example, not once has a Vols upperclassman -- Prentiss Waggner, Herman Lathers or Willie Bohannon, for instance -- complained about the scheme. Instead, they complain of players missing assignments. Just sayin.'

As for Gruden, one thought: You can make $4 million a year working six months or so for Monday Night Football or $5 million working 12 months rebuilding the Vols. What would you do?

Hart may or may not retain Dooley, assuming UT wins out. But if he gives the coach one more season, it must come with the understanding that a really good season in Big Orange Country always includes more SEC wins than losses.