On the last Saturday before his first game as head coach in Knoxville, Derek Dooley has come a long way in the minds of Tennessee fans.
When his name first appeared on television screens in January as the new head coach of the Tennessee Vols, a jilted fanbase reacted in confusion. Who is Derek Dooley and what has he done to deserve the most important job in the state of Tennessee?
Prior to Dooley’s hiring, many Vol fans, angry at the career-minded dissing they received from Lane Kiffin, had expressed a desire for someone from the Tennessee coaching tree who understood the cultural importance of being the Vol's head coach.
They had also been primed by Kiffin to expect a fast rebuilding job that made them part of the national BCS conversation again. If not a “Tennessee guy,” was there another splashy hire, perhaps Will Muschamp, to be had that could lessen the blow of losing Kiffin?
Allegedly, No. 1 UT alum Peyton Manning argued for former Tennessee offensive coordinator and current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. Others rallied behind the impassioned speech and interviews of Volunteer favorite and interim head coach Kippy Brown.
No one, anywhere, clamored for Dooley. Most had no idea he existed.
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ESPN also added pressure to the situation when, as in so many other instances, the network appeared to have the least information but the loudest voice of those covering the Volunteer coaching search. The network followed UT athletic director Mike Hamilton’s every move, and perhaps some moves he did not really make, reporting that he had offered the job to several people and been turned down before zeroing in on Dooley.
When Dooley’s hire was first leaked, a quick scan of his resume brought no comfort to Vol fans. The coaching attorney and athletic director at Louisiana Tech had a less than impressive overall record at his only head coaching stop. His connection to Nick Saban seemed like a reach. He had been a recruiting coordinator and a tight end coach, not an offensive or defensive guru. His father Vince’s history at Georgia was legendary, but not recent enough to matter to recruits or fans in 2010. Hamilton appeared to be desperate and many assumed he would soon be on his way out in Knoxville.
Then Dooley stepped up to the podium at his first press conference and said “britches,” talked about legendary Tennessee coach Robert Neyland’s game maxims, which Kiffin had found annoying, and about building a team with great character.
Three weeks later, buoyed by an impressive staff that included holdovers from Kiffin and boy genius defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox from Boise State, Dooley celebrated a top 10 recruiting class. This was the beginning of signs of life in Knoxville.
In the past eight months, with an “aw, shucks” persona paired with calculated proactive responses to off-the-field discipline, including player involvement in a very ugly bar brawl, as well as, in his words, “program protecting” reactions to transfer requests from players Bryce Brown and Aaron Douglas, Dooley has worked his way into the hearts of the Tennessee faithful.
Derek Dooley is the anti-Kiffin and Vol fans could not be happier.
Players say they want to play for Dooley because their coach respected them and their difficult transition from day one without demanding they make Volunteer football about “the Dooley way”—a great departure from the “branding” of Tennessee football under Kiffin.
Symbolic of Dooley’s persona, he spent the last days of summer practice teaching his players about the history and tradition of the Volunteer program, reiterating the privilege it is to be a player and a coach at Neyland Stadium on Saturdays.
After Dooley’s history lesson, starting quarterback Matt Simms waxed poetic about the power of repeating Neyland’s famous maxims, joining generations of players who have uttered those words before each game in a hallowed moment in the Tennessee locker room.
For all the nostalgia, however, Dooley knows a killer schedule and immense pressure to win will matter most this fall.
Last week while meeting with the local media, Dooley used an elaborate analogy about recruiting rankings and limited scholarship players in a rarely transparent public moment that hinted that being the UT coach could be a burden. Dooley then stopped himself mid-sentence and said “but I’d rather be here with 72 scholarships than just about anywhere else.”
Quotes like those are why fans and players want the much-maligned Dooley hire to work out. They hope that, like last year’s hiring of Gene Chizik at Auburn and like the unexpected hiring of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl, Dooley can make Hamilton look like a genius.
All Dooley has to do now is win in the SEC playing future hall of fame coaches Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Steve Spurrier every year. If he can do that, Volunteer fans may have the perfect man for the job at Tennessee.
Johnny Lewis is a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report covering the Tennessee Volunteers. You can read his other articles at www.kentuckyvols.com and follow him on Twitter @kyvolunteer.