Semantics of convincingly winning out down the stretch run aside, the Derek Dooley era at the University of Tennessee is not-so-slowly dwindling to an end. Compliments of a 14-19 overall record and one SEC win in his last 13 conference games, Dooley will likely press and fold those handcrafted orange slacks and stash away the memories of his time at Tennessee in some box destined for some attic in the next stage of his life.
Ten years from now, we’ll allude to Dooley’s time in Knoxville as the punch line to a joke – akin to the Mike Shula jokes at Alabama and the Ray Goff jokes at Georgia. I’ll remember it a little bit differently.
Derek Dooley came into one of the worst situations imaginable in college football – 68 scholarship athletes, a pending NCAA investigation, and a war-weary fanbase – and met everything head on. Unlike the predecessor who created the mess he inherited, he embraced the traditions of the University of Tennessee as his own and was unwavering in his resolve.
Did he make mistakes?
Was he a good man?
I like to think so.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. As much as I’d like to think that the qualities and characteristics of being a respected human being should outweigh everything, I realize that college football is big business, and, like in all big business, ultimately there’s a bottom line to answer for.
Derek Dooley’s line doesn’t read so well.
If you had to go back and pinpoint one clear mistake that led to Derek Dooley’s demise, it’d be a difficult choice but it would almost universally be a schematic mistake. For me, hiring Sal Sunseri was probably the beginning of the end – not because Sunseri is a bad defensive coordinator, but because the timing for a complete philosophical overhaul defensively was suspect.
Even coming off a 5-7 season and a despicable performance to finish the year against the lowly Kentucky Wildcats, it was pretty obvious that the Vols had the makings of a potentially special offense. All they really needed to win football games was a competent defense.
So switching to a complicated scheme during the most critical offseason of your entire administration probably wasn’t the most advisable move. If Dooley truly wanted to emulate the Nick Saban blueprint, the time to implement a base 3-4 was on Day One. Not in Year Three (or Year Two if you follow Dooley’s Year Zero philosophy) with eight wins as a bare essential for keeping his job.
The missed tackles and blown coverages were impossible not to notice, and any montage to the dissolution of Derek Dooley will surely be stuffed with highlights of opponents marching unimpeded into a Checkerboarded endzone.
There was an expected loss to Alabama sandwiched in between heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss, almost all of them following the same guidelines: poor tackling, missed assignments and untimely turnovers.
Unlike in years past, there was never any lack of effort. The Vols fought back against Mississippi State, Georgia, and South Carolina, but couldn’t finish.
That defensive incontinence and late-game impotence is Derek Dooley’s undoing. The SEC has a tendency to accentuate the worst qualities of a man.
But, as Dooley’s era comes to a close, it’s important to remember the good, as well.
He carried the torch when very few people thought it was worth carrying. That’s a symbol that should resonate with anyone who has spent meaningful time in Knoxville, where the torch bearer is a revered symbol.
That may not be enough for Derek Dooley the football coach, but it says a lot about Derek Dooley the man.
Last Saturday, according to Daily Beacon editor Lauren Kittrell, Derek Dooley took a moment after another disheartening loss to South Carolina to sit on the pavement with his arm around his loving son and give his wife a reassuring nod as if to say, “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Our lives and his will ultimately march along.