Wiedmer: Is Tennessee's fan base unrealistic about Vols?

photo Tennessee coach Derek Dooley

On Friday afternoon, Nov. 13th, 1992, the University of Tennessee parted company with football coach Johnny Majors after 16 seasons. His final game before that ouster was a 24-23 loss at South Carolina.

On Monday afternoon, Nov. 3rd, 2008, UT parted ways with football coach Phillip Fulmer after 16 seasons. Two days earlier, Fulmer's Vols lost 27-6 at South Carolina.

Embattled third-year Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley accompanies his struggling team to South Carolina this Saturday, where the Vols hope to end a three-game losing streak and snap an 0-4 start in the Southeastern Conference.

Anybody notice a possible trend here?

Just sayin'.

No one but UT athletic director Dave Hart may know for certain Dooley's coaching fate, and at least for now Hart isn't saying.

But you also can't help but wonder if what he isn't saying is all that needs to be said about the long-term future of the coach he didn't hire.

Is his silence on Dooley's future the loudest statement possible that the coach has none? Or is Hart silent because he believes there is no story here for at least one more autumn?

For instance, has Hart noticed the same thing my good friend Wes Rucker did on Sunday, which is the not so little fact that the Vols have lost four SEC games to date to teams which have lost ONE ... GAME ... TOTAL?

Whatever else any UT backer thinks of Dooley and his mostly retooled staff, you could be a pretty good football team and go 0-4 against BCS No. 2 Florida, at No. 10 Georgia and at No. 11 Mississippi State and against No. 1 Alabama.

Nor does it get any easier against the Gamecocks, who are ranked No. 13 in the latest BCS rankings.

If Volniacs want to spew venom over the current 3-4 record and 0-4 league mark, they might want to save at least a little of it for an SEC office that's strapped them with one of the toughest schedules imaginable within the league the last couple of years. Or don't you remember last season's first six SEC games against Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas?

To refresh your memory, UT was the only SEC East school to play the three-headed monster of Bama, Arkansas and LSU - Top Five teams all.

This doesn't completely excuse Dooley or his staff. The Vols have either been outcoached, outplayed or both in the final halves of games both last season and this one.

Yes, there seems more fight in this team at times, particularly at Georgia and Mississippi State. But it also seems to self-destruct with alarming regularity, either by busted assignment, turnover or brain cramp.

Then again, as much as the Big Orange Nation doesn't want to hear it, three of the past four decades of UT football - if viewed in 10-year increments - have hardly been the stuff of legend.

UT fans may not think of themselves as a school given to 8-4 seasons - the perfect example of a good-but-not-great program - but that's pretty much been their average record for every decade since 1970 save the magical 1990s.

Between 1970 and 1979 the Vols were 75-39-3 overall and 29-29-1 within the SEC. Between 1980 and 1989 UT was 77-37-3 overall and 37-23-2 in league play. And from 2000 to 2009 - the decade before Dooley arrived - the Vols were 83-44 overall and 51-29 in league play.

Divide those totals by 10 and each of those three decades roughly breaks down to an 8-4 average record.

But the decade of the 1990s is where the Big Orange Nation wants to live. UT went 99-22-2 overall and 64-15-1 within the SEC while winning one national championship and playing in five BCS level bowls.

Good stuff, to be sure. But something of an aberration when compared to the decades that surround it. If - as Dooley likes to preach - you are what your numbers say you are, the Vols' history suggests them closer to an 8-4 program than a 10-2 machine.

None of this will necessarily deliver Dooley a fourth season. While there were glimmers of hope in road losses to Georgia and Mississippi State, the Vols looked awful in home losses to Florida and Alabama.

Hart may not be talking, but he surely saw the 35,000 to 40,000 Alabama fans in the stands on Saturday night and that the UT portion of the crowd exited by the close of the third quarter.

When your athletic department is already swimming in red ink the last thing you want a national television audience to see is your stadium filled with Bama crimson rather than Clorox Orange.

At that point you begin to wonder if replacing your coach is more a matter of "can you afford not to" than the other way around.

But if Dooley needs to correct anything in the days ahead, it may be his own ill-chosen words. You just can't walk into a post-game press conference following a 31-point loss to a bitter rival and say, as Dooley did late Saturday, "I don't know," or "not sure why," four times in five minutes.

You may not want to say why, but you best know why, lest your AD swiftly find someone who does.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

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