Vols Football: The Challenge Derek Dooley Was Man Enough To Accept
Legend has it that around 1900, the explorer Ernest Shackleton ran the following classified ad in a newspaper:
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success."
The task facing newly-hired University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is metaphorically not that dissimilar, thanks to the sudden abandonment of the Vols football program by Lane Kiffin.
There's been plenty of speculation and ridicule strewn across message boards as to why UT couldn't land a coach posthaste. Muschamp passed. Whittingham passed. Calhoun passed. Sumlin got an extension. Cutcliffe wanted too much control and wanted to bring in his coaches. If Lovie Smith were a candidate, the buyout and salary might've been a few million too much.
Why did they all decline the gig? Well, consider the scenario that UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton criss-crossed the country with and laid out in front of coaches all week long:
Tennessee began and went through the season with 63 players on scholarship via attrition during Kiffin era. Whether players quit or got quit-it doesn't matter. Now subtract another 12 via graduation, 13 if you count Eric Berry, or maybe 14 if you count Dennis Rogan, if he comes out early. So that leaves a maximum of 51 returning players on scholarship.
Of course, there's Fulmer's last two horrible recruiting classes that will be juniors and seniors-wafer thin on both lines. Chances are a pure freshman QB could very well line up behind an O-line where only one player in the two-deep has any significant playing experience beyond garbage time. By and large, they're small and not as talented as what you'd want in the positions.
As far as replacing and reloading the class of '09 and beyond goes, there's the SEC's cap on offering scholarships: 27 max (25 enrollees plus two back-counts), regardless (thanks, Houston Nutt!). And then there's the hits the team might take thanks to the APR number TBD and scholarship reductions thanks to the potential violations from the Kiffin era. So at best, UT can only have 79 scholarship players out of 85 on the roster. Bruce Pearl can relate.
And then there's the schedule. The first eight games include a visit from Oregon, a visit from Florida the week after, @LSU two weeks later, @UGA, Bama two weeks later and then @South Carolina. Fun!
Oh, by the way, you have to hire six to seven new position coaches. And you and your new staff will have till Feb. 3 to pull and salvage a class together in spite of Ed Orgeron's shenanigans, while avoiding the bad karma that might come with (hate to say it) pulling a Kiffin and bailing Louisiana Tech at the last and worst possible moment.
Additionally, you have to reassure existing recruiting targets that you have their best interests at heart, and, you have to earn the trust of the existing roster to keep them from transferring to other schools. Like USC.
Looking back, Coach Fulmer sat back on "all the equity I earned around here" for many years, which screwed UT hard.
Kiffin fleeing the ship at such a late juncture left an huge mark, too. He came into town with hubris and the promise to stay and turn the ship around. He gave UT the swagger we've been missing for a long time, both the players and the fans. And then he ran out at the worst possible moment.
It could easily take five or more seasons to recover from this double whammy. As a result, UTAD Mike Hamilton immediately had to fly all over the country, open checkbook in hand, saying "here, hold my grenade."
Personally, I might've been okay if Kiffin had left immediately at season's end. At least we would've had more time to find a coach, although I think, and hope, Hamilton found a good one. At this point, we have no choice but to believe.
I wish Coach Dooley the best of luck. And if USC and UT ever meet in a bowl game before Kiffin suddenly tucks tail and goes to the NFL with similarly bad timing, may God have mercy on their souls, because I can assure you that Coach Dooley, the coaches, players and fans most certainly will not.
If anything, they'll make sure it's as Shackleford-esque as possible.
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