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After the fallout and the pain, there is one looming question on everyone's mind from Calhoun to Calhoun.

Is Derek Dooley a good hire?

Was Mark Richt a good hire? Was Gene Chizik? Or any number of coaches who brought either an unproven resume or a spotty career head-coaching record to the big stage?

Those answers, like the ones for which University of Tennessee fans are searching, came in time. Dooley has earned this chance, whether he succeeds or fails. Was Phillip Fulmer a proven commodity before he led one of the Volunteers' true glory eras in the mid-to-late 1990s?

Time is of the essence for Dooley, because Fulmer's was a different circumstance.

That was before now. That was before the age of winning before the games start. That was before the age of instant gratification, when every team is supposed to hire the next 35-year-old with a 26-2 record and "the next Urban Meyer" plastered on his business card.

That was before last week, when the hot shot flew west and turned the state on its ear and caused an Internet eruption that could have made Bill Gates blush.

The breakup was even more painful because of the hoops through which Lane Kiffin made the UT fan base jump. His style was energetic and outside the box when he was wearing an orange visor. In the hours after the news leaked that he had sneaked off in the night, the blind bandwagon support that had created the Lane Train barreled into a chorus about his eschewing of tradition and his overwhelming ego.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, of course, and the answers are dependent on perspective. He may have been a jerk, but that he was UT's jerk may be the simplest way to describe the hard feelings and the angst in the Big Orange Nation.

That said, did he leave the program in a better place, as he claimed in his all-too-short departure news conference last week? Is UT better equipped for tomorrow because of what Kiffin did in the previous yesterdays?

It's impossible to know this morning, of course. The ultimate answers will be given on Saturdays in the fall in the coming years.

The talent appears to be better. The recruiting appears to be good - and salvageable, in spite of the horrific timing of Kiffin's departure.

But the image - within the program and the conference - needs work. I know at least three people who grew up Tennessee fans who had a difficult time rooting for the Kiffin-led Vols. They are willing to embrace Dooley, and that has to count for something, right?

Tennessee football is not broken, but it is bruised. Tarnish remains from a messy divorce with a favorite son and an all-too-short fling with a West Coast floozy who has giggled his happy little self back to the land of palm trees, Pac-10 news conferences and passionless offseasons where football coaches can blend into the background.

Above everything this side of his indifference to NCAA rules, the biggest hurdle for Kiffin was adjusting to the never-ending, always burning spotlight that comes with running an SEC football program.

Sunday at Memorial Auditorium, I was waiting in line at the concession stand during the intermission of "Sesame Street: Elmo Grows Up" with my wife and 2-year-old son. Behind me in line was a guy talking on his phone.

"We're downtown watching Elmo," the guy said into the phone. "It's good, I guess. It's halftime right now."

I smiled at the exchange and at my realization at the man's unspoken cultural commentary. There is no intermission in SEC country; there's only halftime because the game never stops.

Kiffin never understood that. Dooley grew up smack dab in the middle of it.

In the end, Dooley's pedigree of SEC football doesn't mean he will be a better coach than Kiffin. However, it does mean Dooley is better prepared for the challenges ahead.

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