It didn't take long to figure out who the last guy was when he became the Tennessee Vols head coach in December of '09.
Vols fans knew about his dislike for late limo drivers, his ardent pursuit of top recruits, his predisposition to throwing mud on respected SEC coaches, and even his distaste for following the rules and guidelines set forth by the NCAA.
They thought, when he named his kid, Knox, he would, in his own words, "be here a while."
There were many promises made, few kept. Yet, he was a writer's best friend. You never had to work that hard to write about Lane Kiffin. He always supplied you with something.
When Derek Dooley took over the program, shortly after Knox's dad abruptly left for USC, many writers and fans were suddenly without their source of inspiration.
Dooley did things differently. We wrote about his "embargo" on the Knoxville media. I said at the time it could be a good thing considering all that happened over the previous year. And it was.
Dooley got the fact that this fanbase and most importantly, the players, were tired of all the rhetoric and diarrhea of the mouth.
What could he possibly say to the cute, steady, southern brunette of a program that had just been left at the altar for the hot, Baywatch blonde?
So Dooley waited until the recent Big Orange Caravan to begin to open up more with fans and media types rather than throw down the gauntlet, Kiffin-style, from the opening press conference.
In my first encounter with Derek Dooley, I must say, I was impressed with his demeanor, his candor, and the overall southern hospitable nature—quite the contrast with the west coast, rock-star persona that Lane Kiffin took on last year.
Either way, the fans were eating out of Dooley’s hand, just as they did Kiffin the year before in Chattanooga, TN.
The autograph line was over 100 people long at one point. During the fan question/answer portion of the evening one Volniac officially welcomed Dooley into the Big Orange family and asked if the new coach “felt the love” that Vols fans were sending his way.
Dooley responded, “This isn’t my first rodeo,” in a true southern twang, “this is the honeymoon period. Everybody understands things a lot better this time of year.”
Before the fan questioning began however, we in the media had our chance to ask a few questions.
After the coach arrived 45 minutes late, his first stop was in front of every television and print media entity in Chattanooga, which totaled about 15 local media-types and yours truly, the reporter from bleacherreport.com, who put away his stash of orange for one night to get a good story rather than wait in line for autographs.
One of the first questions, asked by a veteran reporter of the Chattanooga Time Free Press, was, what’s the one question you get asked the most?
Dooley replied, "The Tennessee fans have been great. I think everyone wants to know a little bit about who I am and what I believe and what's the state of the program.” The coach continued, “I hope I'm calming them and reassuring them that it's getting built on a solid foundation and we've got a great future ahead."
That statement comes from a coach who gets it. This is a coach that knows Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is a coach that knows getting your name and logo in the national media is something that’s accomplished on the field, rather than running off at the mouth.
Another SEC coach who happens to be cut from that very same cloth is Alabama head coach, Nick Saban. The top SEC coach happens to be one of Dooley’s mentors and closest friends. So when asked about their friendship, Dooley said, "I have a lot of respect for him. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the opportunity he gave me, and we do have a good relationship.”
Dooley was one of Saban’s top assistants for years at LSU, even following the Great Saban to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. When Dooley and Saban left the SEC for the next best thing, the NFL, the conference was just beginning its meteoric rise from the best in the land, to the best in the land, by far.
I asked Dooley what the difference in the SEC is now; compared to the one he left in ’05.
Dooley commented, "That's a good question. A lot of the faces have changed, but there's still a tremendous amount of good talent. There's some great coaching, and the fans are no different. They're just as passionate and have high expectations everywhere you go. So not a lot's changed, but the faces have changed quite a bit."
That wasn’t necessarily the answer I was expecting. I was glad to hear that response, because this SEC has gotten much tougher in many categories.
The talent level of the players and coaches in this league has increased greatly since ’05. The fans are even more rabid and their expectation level has increased tremendously, as a result. The importance of recruiting has skyrocketed in this league as well.
One could gather from Dooley’s response that he’s either naïve or he knows exactly what lies ahead and realizes that admitting such a difference would make him look like a sheep before the pack of wolves that this conference has become.
If there’s one thing that Dooley is not, however, it’s naïve. This is a smart, well-educated, former lawyer who just couldn’t get away from the family business. The son of an SEC coaching legend, Georgia’s Vince Dooley, said he learned quite a bit from his legendary father.
Of the elder Dooley, he said, "Where do you begin? Most of what I learned from him is just watching him. I hung around him as one of those 'gym rats' as a child, watching how he conducted his business and how he dealt with people, how he coached his football team. Not a lot of 'Sit down and let me teach you son, but a whole lot of observation, and I think that probably means more than anything."
In case you are keeping tabs, Derek Dooley’s professional mentor is one of the most successful head coaches in SEC, Nick Saban, and his father was one of the most successful SEC head coach’s in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Derek Dooley’s two biggest influences have combined for 325 wins, nine SEC Championships, and three national championships.
I know what you’re thinking—that, plus 50 cents will get you tomorrow morning’s paper.
After all, Lane Kiffin’s father is the most respected defensive mind, quite possibly, in all of football. And his professional mentor was the great Pete Carroll.
If you are looking for more to differentiate the two, you need look no further than Dooley’s comments during the question/answer segment with the fans. Dooley said, "this institution is so much bigger than me, or our players. I believe that we'll have a culture you (the fans) will be proud of."
After a year in which national headlines, and personal resumes became more important than Tennessee football, Derek Dooley is exactly what this Vols program needs—different.