On January 16, 2010, news came out that I didn't expect to hear. Could an SEC school, steep in tradition, really be hiring a head coach from a small Western Athletic Conference school?
The answer to that was yes and the guy was former Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley. He said all the right things during his press conference, and he's done all the right things through their recruiting period as well as leading up to just weeks before the college football season kicks off.
He didn't have much time to work. He was thrown the fire and handled the heat better than I expected he would. I will admit, I was wrong about him. I questioned the hire, even looked at it cross-eyed. Now, seven months later, I'm rooting for him. Hard.
Sure Tennessee had their ego bruised when Kiffin left, not to mention head coaches like Utah's Kyle Whittingham, Duke's David Cutcliffe, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun all told them "thanks, but no thanks."
You have to believe that they were burning up the phones, trying to get that next big name before they turned to Louisiana Tech and their head coach.
When Kiffin was first hired on at Tennessee back in 2009, the program's slogan was "it's time." Now that Kiffin has moved and the Derek Dooley era has officially begun, that slogan has become, "it's time to start over."
During the SEC media day, you could tell that there was a lot of respect for the new coach at Rocky Top, not only from the media but also from fellow coaches. "I have a lot of respect for the new coach at Tennessee," Florida head coach Urban Meyer told the Miami Herald. "I spent a lot of time talking to [Dooley]. You can tell he has everything in order. He's a high-character guy. That's nice to see. I have a lot of respect for that coach.''
For a brand new coach to arguably the best conference in college football, that's high praise. Meyer isn't a stranger to what Dooley is going through. Meyer was that 'new guy' once. You might remember that the Florida head coach left the University of Utah in 2004 to take over the Gators' program.
Success won't come easy for the first year coach. It might take him a few seasons before he returns the Volunteers to SEC prominence, but he's on the right track.
Dooley has admitted that the team will have some growing pains and will have their tough times, but with recruiting likely to get better each and every year, their return to prominence isn't far away.
Unfortunately, as young as this team is, it's a bad year to have Alabama, LSU, as well as Oregon on their 2010 schedule. So, just like he was thrown to the fire when he was hired, so will his team be with tough opponents. While they may lose these games, it will provide the young players the game time experience they will need to become better players as their college career's continue.
If you thought Dooley would come in with a light touch and a slow trigger when it came to discipline, you would be dead wrong. He has already kicked one player off the team and suspended two more after a fight at an off campus bar during the off season. If that doesn't say "fly right or you won't be here," I don't know what does.
He's unproven as we stand here right now, two weeks before the season opener. We don't know how he'll handle a full slate of SEC games. But we had the same questions about Urban Meyer when he first came to the conference. Sure Meyer was successful at Utah but as I've heard more times than I care to listen, Utah isn't the SEC.
I'm willing to give him at least two years to turn this program around and begin to show the fruits of his labor. If, by that point, Tennessee isn't any better than they are now, then maybe Dooley might have been the wrong choice.
But I don't think he'll need two years to show vast improvement. Dooley is a sound enough coach to put the Volunteers back on the map. Somewhere they haven't been since the late 90's and early 2000's. Tough Tennessee has been to bowl games in nine of the last 10 years, they are a combined 3-6 in those bowl games and they haven't won a conference title since 1998.
There are a lot of things Tennessee fans are ready to see change and they're ready to see it now. But, they will have to be patient and let Dooley get his feet wet before he jumps in head first.
Sure he's no Phillip Fulmer, but he doesn't have to be to start his own legacy. There's a definite challenge in front of him, but one that can be passed with flying colors. Success won't happen overnight in Knoxville, but it will happen.
Have faith Rocky Top, this is the start of good things to come for Tennessee football.
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