The Derek Dooley Era: An RTT Living History


We look back at some of our best and most incorrect stories from the last three years, tracking the story of Tennessee Football under Derek Dooley.

It's been many things around here the last few years, but boring has not been among them. As we await the announcement of Tennessee's next head football coach, we take a look back at the Derek Dooley Era through the eyes of RockyTopTalk.

A couple of thoughts here: one, there are almost 5,000 words in this post, so don't hurt yourself. Two, you can also go back and read the comments on all of these posts to get a greater feel for the moment and see how right and wrong you actually were. These posts carry unrealized optimism, worst case scenarios coming to light, warning signs being verbalized as early as the middle of last season, and even a sense of inevitability, to me. It was really interesting to go back and read all of these and we'd love to hear your thoughts on it as well. Included in the final link in this thing are stories by myself, Brad, and Joel on the importance of the next hire from the last two weeks - after putting all of this together, it's interesting to find both hope and gravity in those posts at the end.

We don't like the word "timeline" around these parts, so we'll go with "living history" and see how that works...

January 13, 2010 - Lane Kiffin: Rebound Girl (Will)

Lane Kiffin can say whatever he wants about us being in better shape than we were when he found us 14 months ago. That was a true statement five hours ago. But in one day, he may have done more to hurt us in the long run than Phillip Fulmer ever did. When you bail on us three weeks before signing day and do everything in your power to take all of our recruits with you, you weaken us immeasurably. Whatever good shape we were in on Monday, by his own hand Kiffin changed the entire situation for the worse on Tuesday. For the much worse. Our recruiting class could go from Top 10 to Top 100 overnight, and those effects could last for years.

January 13, 2010 - The Pendulum Swings in Knoxville (Will)

So when Mike Hamilton - who is feeling a more tangible heat this time around - is looking for the next guy, the idea holds that he'll be thinking of safety and stability more than the need to go younger and make a splash. Some things will always be essential - the guy has to recruit nationally, and of course, he has to inspire confidence that he can win and ultimately have the results that we hope follow - but now Hamilton is much less likely to take a chance on someone the same way he did with Kiffin. And he is much more likely to select someone who will buy in to the Tennessee Family.

This means Tennessee's next coach is more likely to come from the David Cutcliffe pool than the Mike Leach pool.

January 15, 2010: The Juicy Bits from Derek Dooley's Introductory Press Conference (Joel)

Used the word "britches." +1

July 9, 2010: Community, Culture, and Change at Tennessee (The Bar Knoxville fight) (Will)

Derek Dooley won't change the culture of major college athletics. There's too much power, too much money, too many places like Bar Knoxville that will happily give VIP status to college athletes, and too many places like...well, our site...that exist because of these kids in the first place. To play football or basketball in Knoxville is to be a celebrity; Dooley won't touch that.

But I do believe - and I believe he believes - that he can make an impact on the culture.

We have a long way to go when this many players are involved in an incident like this one, or the previous two. But that's also where the process starts: making enough of an impact on our own team, that there aren't large groups of players out together at once causing trouble.

October 2, 2010: LSU 16 Tennessee 14 - The Agony & The Idiocy (Will)

If both own a DVR and enjoy pain, go back and watch the final sequence. Watch the pure joy on Dooley's face as he celebrates with his team for all of one minute. The expression on his face, for a few seconds, was shared by all of his players: youthful, schoolboy exuberance. You think you wanted to win this game? Think about these players. Think about what they've been through. Think about how hard they continue to work. And think about what this win would've meant to them.

Think about what it would've meant for Derek Dooley.

The darker parts of my fanhood would now like to ask you to think about this:

What if those sixty seconds are as good as it gets this year?

November 13, 2010 - Vols Blow Out Ole Miss, Fans Drinking the Dool-Aid (Joel)

That's what happens when your true freshman quarterback completes 18 of 34 passes for 323 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions while your defense forces the other guy into three interceptions, two of them pick sixes. That's what happens when your offense hits 50 points and your defense holds the opponent to 14 two weeks in a row when they were averaging 22 and 30 a mere fortnight ago. It's what happens when the stats and Vegas bookies each scream into opposite ears to expect a close game and your team blows it out by 38.

Ah, yes. The Dool-Aid tastes so sweet.

November 27, 2010: Tennessee Volunteers Continue the Streak: 24-14 over Kentucky (Hooper)

Credit all the seniors, really. The tears they shed after the game were well-deserved; no team at Tennessee has weathered transition like this class has. They left the program in the best shape they could have managed after two coaching changes, numerous lost players, an acidic fanbase, and many opportunities to hang up the cleats and look for enjoyment in life. They earned the victory that came on the wing of a freshman quarterback and his senior deep receiver.


November 27, 2010: Tennessee 24 Kentucky 14 - Beautiful Things Out Of The Dust (Will)

What was rock bottom?

Was it Fulmer's slow death, culminating in a press conference and a loss to Wyoming in the same week? Was it January, when a head coach dared to leave the University of Tennessee in the middle of the night? Was it September, when we couldn't count to eleven on the final play of what would've been the biggest win of the year? Or was it the weeks that followed, with a 41-14 loss at Georgia and the worst ever loss to Alabama in Knoxville?

I'll tell you what it wasn't. It wasn't today.

For the first time, we can definitively say that this team has made tangible progress. However down we were, we're not there anymore. The corner has been turned. And this program is moving forward again.

December 31, 2010: At What Point Does The Music City Bowl End? (Joel)

We'd done everything right. We'd dusted off our britches and pressed on through a trying offseason and a tumultous season. We'd learned our lesson, we'd waited for the fat lady to sing, and she'd sung us a love song. So we celebrated.

And again, it wasn't over. And it didn't end well. Psyche.

August 10, 2011: Dooley's Recruiting Methods Frustrating But Flourishing (Brad)

Dooley's methods in that regard can be maddening to some fans like myself who follow recruiting. I've even questioned before why he doesn't target the higher quality players earlier and move on to the "foundation kids" after he's turned down by some of the best players in the country. Instead, Dooley has tended to get the basis of the class early before going after some bigger names late.

September 11, 2011: Tennessee 45 Cincinnati 23 - There's A Stirring (Will)

But for the first time in five years, Tennessee is 2-0.

And for the first time in five years, Tennessee will face the Gators with all of us believing one truth:

The Vols can win.

My point is this: Everybody needs to take a deep breath -- fans, players, coaches. UT found out some things about itself in the frantic, frenzied, Oh-Lord-What-Do-We-Do aftermath of a cataclysmic injury. The problem is the Vols didn't find them quickly enough to beat Florida, but at least they found them.

Thinking back on the few backbreaking plays that helped beat us Saturday doesn't make me think this team is hopeless. Bray's interception to start the second half was massive, but it looked like he was throwing across his body, trying to throw it away and out-of-bounds and just didn't get it there. If Palardy makes that early kick, things are not so desperate offensively trying to catch up points. Dooley out-thought himself and made a bad decision on the two-point conversion. Multiple times, defenders -- most notably Curt Maggitt -- were in position to make plays on Rainey and others and simply failed to wrap up.

These are massive mistakes, but they are fixable.

On Tennessee's next drive, an apparent touchdown on 3rd and 16 was called back and turned into a 4th and 3, and Dooley sent out the punting unit. This punt was actually good, pinning the Bulldogs deep, but their first play went 71 yards when Malcolm Mitchell get behind our secondary, which Bulldogs had been doing all night without actually catching the ball. I could not tell you where our safeties were the whole game. Anyway, they caught this one, and Georgia turned that play into a touchdown as well, and suddenly the score was 20-6, and the game was pretty much over.

But the bad news wasn't. The Vols could make nothing of a hilarious 4th and 56 for Georgia, and Bray later whacked his throwing hand against a Georgia defender's helmet and either broke or dislocated his thumb. Our kicker had an extra point blocked and then kicked the onside attempt out of bounds. And LSU and Alabama are up next. And then South Carolina.

Herman Lathers out early. Janzen Jackson, gone. Justin Hunter. Gone. Tauren Poole. Something hammy something. Tyler Bray, bad thumb on throwing hand. Pox.


Don't get me wrong here. I'm still on the Big Orange Dooley.

Do I think he's the answer? I certainly do right now. He's stabilizing the program, recruiting well, re-stocking the roster and changing the culture around the program.

Do I think he's the long-term answer? That's something I can't say right now. There are too many game-management issues, too much discombobulation on the sidelines, too few halftime adjustments and mental lapses for me to definitively say "This is because we're young and inexperienced," or "This is because of coaching."

I definitely believe depth played -- and continues to play -- a significant role in the fact that we're getting ripped apart in the second half against good teams. But I can't help to think that fight and heart somehow takes over at a point and there's the prevailing belief when a team collectively says, "Screw being tired. Screw the fact that we're not as talented as these guys. We can BEAT this team!" And that hasn't happened yet under Dooley.

That's me being as honest as I can be. We just don't know yet. And that's fine. This team has never won a big game under Dooley, and he's never won a big game as a head coach. Those are the scary, stripped-down facts, and it's why our wait is ever more excruciating -- because we don't know what we're waiting on exactly.

October 27, 2011 - Justin Worley Takes Over. Now What? (Chris)

We're off the rails at this point. I don't think that's a statement that's particularly controversial, but losing your key players successively over the season can fling you toward the margins if there isn't much of a buffer. It's not up to Worley to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we thought we'd be; even the most optimistic among us (hi, Will!) aren't asking for Worley to bring the magic back. There aren't enough tools in the arsenal to do that, not yet.

October 31, 2011 - What's Wrong With Tennessee Football Has Nothing To Do With Derek Dooley (Will)

Essentially, Tennessee - a once-elite program in the most difficult conference in college football - completely struck out in recruiting three years in a row.

Read that sentence a couple more times, and take a moment to let it sink in.

Now add in the coaching changes. Now add in the injuries this season.

Honest question: how have we not been worse under Dooley?

Look, I know it sucks right now. I know we're not what we should be. But none of that - NONE of it - is Derek Dooley's fault.

You can't arrive by beating Vanderbilt; this isn't the win that's supposed to make us all believe in Derek Dooley. The end result is still miles and miles ahead. But a win like this - the way it happened - against what I'm prepared to call a good Vanderbilt team can make such a difference for this team and this program. The Vols stared down a mountain of adversity and won - not because they were lucky, but because they made the plays they had to have on both sides of the ball. With the game on the line, Tennessee played for and made the breaks, and scored. And when familiar end of game shenanigans appeared ready to return, this time the Vols came out on top.

You can change the past. It's not easy, and there will be resistance, but it can be done. Saturday night, Tennessee claimed a huge victory for the momentum of the program, trading learned helplessness for right action. Right action can lead to right thinking, as the orange dog will attest to. And maybe, just maybe, we can start moving forward again.

November 26, 2011 - It Has To Be Next Year (Will)

Given the situation he inherited, anybody that tells you they can fairly and intelligently say they know for certain Derek Dooley isn't the man for this job is either overreacting or trying to get more readers/listeners. You can't know yet. None of us can. We don't have enough information. It's not fair to put it on him.

But this is the last time I'll be making that argument after a loss.

2012 now becomes "the year" - not just the year when we expect the Vols to show the improvement we've been waiting on, but the year they'll have to, or it will probably cost Derek Dooley his job.

Is it fair that a guy who walked in to what Dooley walked in to should get only three years to fix it? Probably not - there are still some among the local media and even among the fanbase that, before today, said Dooley needed at least four years before we should really judge him.

But fair went out the window today. The loss to Kentucky not only removes whatever confidence - real or imagined - this team built with the dramatic win over Vanderbilt, and not only removes the possibility of sustaining momentum in a bowl game...but now, we all turn to 2012 and say we've been patient enough. You lose to Kentucky, you lose the benefit of the doubt. Now it's time to show us.

January 2, 2012 - Justin Wilcox Forces The Issue (Chris)

This was the fire alarm going off. The smoke was obvious, but regretfully that burrito the dumb guy on your floor freshman year who thought you microwave burritos for half an hour at 7 AM on a Saturday morning done went and set off the fire alarm. (In this case, the dumb guy on your floor is played by Kentucky and Justin Wilcox is a burrito. Metaphors have never been so tortured.)

August 2, 2012 - 10 Questions for 2012 #1 - Is This The Year? (Will)

The main reason I hope Derek Dooley succeeds this year is because I want to believe that the story ends the way it should. The guy who pulls you out of the ditch is the same guy that takes you to the mountain top. It hasn't worked that way other places, most notably for Mike Shula. But it still can here.

I like Dooley's personality, love his press conferences, and think he's funny. None of this matters one bit in winning football games, the main thing he's hired to do and the one thing we're still not sure if he can do. But we're about to find out. And for all of our sakes, I hope the answer is yes.

I also hope the answer is yes because I don't want to look back in five years, when Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter are all stars in the NFL, and wonder how in the world we didn't win when they were here.

I hope the answer is yes because I'm afraid of what will happen if the answer is no. I'm afraid of having to rebuild relationships with recruiting. I'm afraid that even if things will be more stable than when Kiffin left, unless the Jon Gruden rumors come true this time the next guy will be just as little of a sure thing as the last guy, whether that's Kirby Smart or Bobby Petrino or anywhere in between. I'm worried in a mostly-joking-but-serious-enough-to-make-me-sweat way that Vanderbilt will win 8 games against their cupcake schedule, we'll go 5-7 and lose to them, and we might actually consider hiring James Franklin. More than anything, I'm worried that if the answer isn't yes, Tennessee Football will again live in the land of mediocrity, only this time we'll know it's not a temporary stay.

August 15, 2012 - The 3-4 Transition (Jay)

However, despite Tennessee's personnel advantages over most teams who switch defensive alignments, they have one obvious weakness in comparison to the 2007 Alabama team. The Tide had one of the greatest coaches of a generation installing the new defense, while the Vols sport a coordinator who has studied under greats like Saban and John Fox but who has never run a defense at the FBS level. So while Tennessee should expect to have more stamina than the 2007 Tide, it is an open question how their rested performances will compare.

September 1, 2012 - Welcome To A New Era of Tennessee Defense (NC State) (Brad)

A fair share of "no-no-no-YES!" plays occurred Friday night, and several times, a Wolfpack receiver would run unmolested down the seam to the tune of me flinging my hat clear across the room or slamming it to the floor. But in truth, this fast-and-frenetic defense looked exactly like coaches told us it would. There was plenty of organized chaos mixed with simple chaos. But the end result was fine. It was like when my wife whips up some sort of tasty casserole for her picky husband, and I ask, "What all's in here?" She just smiles and says, "Just eat it. You don't want to know."

September 2, 2012 - Tennessee 35 NC State 21 - Stuff's Getting Better (Will)

The buzz was back last night. I sat in the lower level and we were on our feet almost the entire game. The first touchdown was more aboutCordarrelle Patterson than anything else, and rightfully so. But what came later was special, and a huge boost to belief. You will believe Zach Rogers can dust the best cornerback on the field. You will believe the Vols can get pressure on the quarterback and somehow get a safety on a play that started at the 19 yard line. And you will believe in Cordarrelle Patterson. Boom, boom, boom, 22-7.

September 14, 2012 - Tennessee vs Florida: Baby, Have You Got Enough Gas? (Will)

Does this team have what it takes to beat the Gators?

Here's what we still don't know: I don't know how this team will respond if it gets behind. I don't know how this team will respond in a close game in the fourth quarter.

Florida answered both of those questions last week on the road, giving the Gators an advantage there. But confidence is best learned through experience, and the Vols could very well have a chance to earn both in this one.

If the Vols come out and dominate, don't worry, we'll enjoy it plenty. If we've got what it takes to dictate the pace to them and we go up and down the field all night long, hallelujah. But the more likely scenario of a close, tight game will both produce and reveal a lot of character in this football team. Do the Vols have what it takes?

September 15, 2012 - Tennessee Sacrifices Linty Fresh Feeling, Loses to Florida (Chris)

For 35 minutes or so, if you were fooled. It's okay. You'd be forgiven for that. But hey, second half adjustments happen, and credit to Brent Pease for recognizing that Sal Sunseri was taking gambles left and right and figuring out ways to punish it. That's really what the game came down to - a handful of plays in the second half where the penchant to gamble and the need to gamble on defense backfired horribly, and the offense didn't do enough (or, if we're not feeling nice, anything) to recover from it.

Honestly, the thing I came out of this game with was simple: Tennessee got smoked coaching in the second half. You could make a guess that might've happened with the UF defense thanks to last week, but the offensive adjustments? That was new, and it worked.

September 24, 2012 - On Figuring Out The Right Question to Assess Derek Dooley's 2012 (Chris)

And yet, I'm not sure the question is simply "Has Derek Dooley made the Vols a better team than when he got here?". I think the answer to that is yes - the stability and the presence of one elite skill seem to point to a definite improvement. There are moments when it all clicks - Cincinnati, NC State - that point to something critical being right. However, improvement doesn't occur in a vacuum.

The question, therefore, shouldn't be on an absolute basis. It needs to be on a relative scale; is Dooley improving the Vols as a team and a program faster than his competitors are improving their teams and programs?

That's a trickier proposition, but I think it's the right question.

September 29, 2012 - Georgia 51 Tennessee 44 - Growing Pains (Will)

We grew today. And we hurt today. We didn't get the win to make you believe, but we did play well enough to make you think we're going to have the same opportunity against Alabama and South Carolina.

But before we get there, we must go through Starkville. If this team can keep getting better, grow and move forward from this loss, Derek Dooley will be fine and this team can still have a good, meaningful season. But we can't let today beat us in two weeks, we can't let our defense continue to give up big plays every other drive, and we can't fail to grow.

October 14, 2012 - Mississippi State 41 Tennessee 31 - Sands of the Hourglass (Will)

By itself, tonight would've been a tough one to take. The Vols turned it over twice, MSU didn't. The +13 time of possession and +22 advantage in total plays were huge for the Bulldogs and kept our offense off the field. And the defense played better by default because it didn't give up any 70 yard plays, but is still such a liability at times. It sucks to lose a game like this in any year, especially after an off week.

But in this year, it's even worse. Derek Dooley cannot afford to lose to Mississippi State, plain and simple. And no matter how close we may think we're getting, there are only so many grains of sand in the hourglass. And the only way to put sand back in or maybe one day even flip the thing back over is to win. And that seems to be one thing Derek Dooley can't do.

The path of fired coaches is paved with close losses. Mike Shula lost four by one possession in 2006. Ron Zook lost four by one possession in 2004. Tommy Tuberville lost four by one possession in 2008. And all three had done way more than Derek Dooley has done long before their time ran out.

October 27, 2012 - The Vote of No Confidence (South Carolina) (Will)

Tennessee has had chance after chance to overcome adversity. Under Derek Dooley they have never done it against a ranked opponent, 0 for 15. They couldn't do it against Kentucky when their 26 predecessors could. Opportunity has been now here for Saturday after Saturday. It knocks constantly in the SEC. And under Dooley, the Vols never walk through the door.

Plain and simple, there is no evidence to suggest Derek Dooley can win meaningful games at this university.

November 4, 2012 - This is Tennessee Football (Troy) (Will)

I have used the word "literally" and the phrase "this is not hyperbole" more in the last 24 hours than at any point in my life before. Because this is on pace to become the best offense in the history of Tennessee Football, literally. And this is the worst defense in the history of Tennessee Football, literally and any other way you'd like it. And what's left are five losses, four wins, and nothing we feel good about.

Back in the offseason when we said this really could be a nine or ten win team? I don't feel like we were wrong. I've said it this way recently, but really I don't even think we needed an average defense to be successful this season. If we had an average defense, we're 8-1 right now and heading to Atlanta. But even if we had a defense that was like a 3 out of 10, we're 7-2 and loving life. Tennessee Football is what we want Tennessee Football to be.

But we have a defense that is a fraction out of 10, and the common denominator is getting lower every week.

Tennessee had one extra possession -- at the end of regulation that they decided not to use.

How do you not shake your head at that decision? If it was one little thing, a patient person could shake it off, chalk it up to a lesson learned from failure, and hope that the team is better for it next time. But that would be ignoring all of the other stuff with which we've been patient: penalties on the offensive line, all of the times the team failed to get the right number of guys on the field for a play, and a multitude of other maddening situations.

Dooley pocketed the benefits of two time outs, two offensive plays, and about 35 seconds and decided instead that he would have a better opportunity in overtime. Basically, he took the time he had for granted. He wasted it, thinking he could do better later.

And unfortunately, he's done exactly the same thing with his career at Tennessee. He asked us to call his first season Year Zero, and we gave it to him. But he's taken the extra time and opportunities we have given him for granted, and he's failed to make the most of them. Sometimes, like today, he's even failed to try to make the most of them. And this time, I'm guessing that there's no overtime waiting.

November 18, 2012 - There's a Press Conference At 2 And You Know Why (Chris)

It's impressive when you think about it: this is a pretty good job. Wouldn't have known it over the last few years. Here's hoping the new head coach - whoever he is - turns it into the job it can be and the program it should be.

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