When Derek Dooley was announced as the new head coach of the University of Tennessee, few were as critical as me. Dooley came to the Volunteers from Louisiana Tech where he had compiled a record of 17-20.
During his three seasons at the helm for the Bulldogs, two were losing seasons. In fact, he was 4-8 in his final season.
My problem with the hire was not that Dooley could not become a fine coach—he could. However, the University of Tennessee is a top-15 job even when they are down. The Volunteers have terrific facilities and, when relevant, perhaps the most electric stadium in the SEC.
Looking back, the hire was less about credentials and more about finding the anti-Lane Kiffin. Former Vols athletic director, Mike Hamilton, was looking for someone who would represent the University in a positive way. He was looking for someone who put the Vols first and would clean up the mess that Kiffin left behind.
Dooley should be commended because he is successfully doing all of those things.
Dooley was hired to do more than win. He was being asked to refocus, reshape, and re-brand the Tennessee program. While he suffered is third losing season in four years as a head coach last season, there was great progress made off the field.
Dooley instituted a new academic accountability program soon after arriving on campus. He was determined to make sure that the Volunteers student-athletes were adequately prepared for life after football.
Dooley has always had a firm understanding of the importance of education. He is a licensed attorney and his wife is OB/GYN.
He also instituted the Vols for Life program. VFL was created to offer the players support and character building and educational program. While some of the players might still have a ways to go—the program is working.
While these programs and academic standards are import, in the end you are still a football coach and have to win ball games. The season was off to a good start this season but the Vols lost perhaps their top two players early in the season. Both Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter were on their way to All-SEC type seasons.
The loss of these two players is enough to give Dooley a Mulligan for this season, even if they finish with a losing record.
However, next season is critical. The Volunteers are likely to lose their dynamic duo at wide receiver in Justin Hunter and Da’rick Rogers at the end of the 2012 season. Even Tyler Bray could consider and early exit if he has a strong enough season.
Next season the SEC west will be down considerably from this season. Tennessee’s out-of-conference schedule is comprised of North Carolina State, Georgia State, Akron and Troy. Perhaps the most important thing working in the Vols favor is that their young talent will now be seasoned.
If the Vols do not win at least nine games, Dooley could be gone.
No, Barbara Dooley, you are correct, Derek is not on the hot seat. However, he could be within the first six games of next season. Dooley has proven that he is a good man and has his priorities in order. However, winning is what coaches are ultimately judged upon—fair or not.
This season is not over yet, either. An upset win during the season could go a long way. I am hopeful that Dooley will become the coach that he has the potential to be.
He is good for the Volunteers and a strong Tennessee program is good for the SEC.