Derek Dooley is firmly on the hot seat. After the Mississippi State game, even his staunchest supporters admit that. And, while it seems like momentum in the fan base has turned against him (if nothing else, see the rock), there are still those who think Vols fans are being too hasty. After all, Dooley inherited a disaster, and he's still working with a virtually non-existent senior class left over from the Fulmer/Kiffin transition year.
We've had the win/loss debate. Fans disagree on how much should be expected, and how quickly. But there are other ways to evaluate a coach, and it's high time to abandoned one hackneyed debate and take a fresh look at things. Who knows, perhaps we'll find something that's been overlooked.
It's worth noting, while discussing wins and losses, that Dooley never promised wins in any particular timeframe. He said Tennessee would be back, but he had no idea how long it would take. But by year three, the fans should have some signs that those wins will come. So what could Dooley do to convince us that the wins will come?
I've decided to take a look at what Dooley did promise. While he didn't tell Vols fans to expect wins from the start, there were some things that he did tell fans to expect. Presumably, if he was willing to promise them from Day One, they're among his highest priorities. And if he's succeeded in his highest priorities, fans should have reason to believe that he'll succeed in other (related) areas--like winning--if given enough time. If he's not succeeding in his highest priorities after three years? If that's the case, he's probably not the answer for Tennessee, no matter how much time he gets.
So I've gone back through his introductory press conference and picked out what seem to be the things Dooley has told fans to expect. Presumably, these are fair arenas for judgment. So I've asked the Rocky Top Talk writers what they think about whether Dooley has succeeded. I've included their answers here. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments, both answering these questions and adding other promises you feel Dooley has made to Tennessee.
1. If there's anything Tennessee fans have heard plenty of in the last three years, it's different ways to say "process." Bamboo, relentless pursuit if continuous improvement, process, process, process. Probably Dooley's highest priority is getting the team to buy into the process, to not get too high when good things happen, to not get too low when bad things happen. In his introductory press conference, Dooley said "we're going to be a fun team to watch, by how we compete, by the effort that we give, by the togetherness and spirit that we play with. There's going to be bumps along the way, there always is. But I can assure you that we're going to continue to forge ahead." So our first question for evaluation is this: has Dooley successfully instilled a respect of process in Tennessee? Do the Vols compete with high effort, togetherness, and spirit, whether winning or losing?
What Brad had to say:
Here's the thing about a process -- you actually have to progress. On one hand, we're visibly more competitive than we've been. On the other hand, we've not broken through with a win against even a good SEC football team. Dooley has to hang his hats on wins against Cincinnati and N.C. State, but yet we still would be somewhere around eighth or ninth at the highest in the SEC. When you couple that Florida has been down and Georgia hasn't been world-beaters until recently, it makes those losses tougher to stomach.
I think there has been continual improvement, which is an uptick in Dooley's direction, but Tennessee fans need something of substance to point to and say, "This is the coach who can take us back into the Promised Land." We need a win against somebody good to point to and say, "I see that the bamboo is coming." I personally haven't had that. Then there are the bullet points in that quote that I haven't seen. Are we a fun team to watch? Yes, on offense. No, on defense. Effort? Though I think you've seen this team fight a lot more this year than in the past, "effort" has lacked at times throughout Dooley's tenure, so when Tyler Bray admitted the team "kinda" quit against Florida, that didn't help matters. The sense of togetherness has gotten better this year, according to the players, as Da'Rick Rogers was kicked off the team and you've seen this team bond together. But the team's lack of difference-making leadership and consistency have been glaring to me. Who is going to step up and make a play that matters when it matters? Who is going to actually DO something -- and not just talk about doing something -- when a win hinges in the balance?
This team loses spirit sometimes. It just does. It fought back against Florida and against Mississippi State, but it fought back from areas that a lack of discipline and perhaps even high effort put them in. This team cannot put in a full, four-quarter game. Or at least it hasn't yet. In any of our losses, we've not been able to look at the whole game and say, "We played really, really well throughout and we just lost." There haven't been any of those games. So, while I think the slow process is showing some signs of taking hold, it's not fast enough to make me happy. And now you're seeing Georgia, Florida, South Carolina trend back upward and we're just trying/hoping to compete with Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, you've got problems. That's not good enough for me, and I'm not sure we're making headway with enough elite recruits where that's going to change.
What Will had to say:
"Respect of process" is an interesting idea. I also think process and progress have to be closely related or the whole thing obviously goes up in flames. So when I look back at the narrative of Dooley's time here, I think he did an excellent job getting his first team to respect the process. The 2010 team played eventual #2 Oregon toe to toe for almost three quarters, played LSU toe to toe for sixty minutes, and played Alabama even for a half. Then the Vols had a chance to beat the eventual East Champion at South Carolina, rallied around Tyler Bray and rolled to relatively meaningful wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky. Even with the Music City Bowl disaster at the end, you felt like the 2010 team actually got better as the year went along when it would've been easy for the upperclassmen to pack it in, and it made you believe the process was going to work eventually. Then Cincinnati was the next step. And then the narrative got sidetracked by injury, and when process was no longer equal to progress, I think the team stopped respecting it last season in Lexington. And while the offense has certainly made progress in 2012, the overall process feels like it's been stuck in neutral since the Cincinnati game. Nevermind the fans - it's the players I'm concerned about now. Because you can only be stuck in neutral for so long before you just get out of the car. Anything less than our best effort the next two weeks will result in an embarrassment, and then we'll be right back to answering adversity questions, which would show absolutely no progress and thus no respect for the process.
What I_S had to say:
If you'd asked me this after the Florida game, I would've said "F minus minus, worst place." If you'd asked me this after last year's Arkansas game. . . or Florida game. . . or the 2010 Oregon game, I would've said the same. The team gets discouraged when they get down, and one bad play can be enough to break them--even if they have a lead, as we saw against Florida. This is just the opposite of the even keel that Dooley has harped on since day one.
Even worse was the Kentucky game last year. Not only was there no effort, there was no togetherness. Players accused teammates of not wanting to win. Players accused teammates of only caring about stats. It was the antithesis of effort, togetherness, and relentless pursuit of anything good.
But we're not asking after the Florida game. And against Georgia, Tennessee got into a 27-10 hole and came back to take the game to the wire. And against Mississippi State, Tennessee got into a 27-14 hole and came back to take the game to the wire. So effort and fighting through adversity is improving. But, while it's no longer a total failure, I can't give full marks after 2+ years of inconsistent effort. We'll see how the team responds to adversity against Alabama and South Carolina. If things look good, Dooley gets an "alright, but what took you so long?" If not, we'll have to write off the level of compete against Georgia and Mississippi State as a positive blip in a failed three years.
What Joel had to say:
I'm not sure whether this is one question or two. For me, getting players to "buy into the process" isn't necessarily defined by whether they don't "get too high when good things happen . . . [or] get too low when bad things happen." So the "respect of process" isn't necessarily measured by whether "the Vols compete with high effort, togetherness, and spirit, whether winning or losing."
If this is two questions, then the answer to the second question -- whether their effort is the same regardless of whether they're winning or losing -- is a mixed bag, and it depends on whether you look at it on a game-by-game basis, on a season-long-basis, or on a Dooley Era basis. They've certainly hung their heads and gone under in games at times. They did it more often last year than this year, but it did still happen this year against Florida. Yet it did not against Georgia or Mississippi State. And they certainly did it on a season-long basis last year when the team essentially quit before the final game against Kentucky. It remains to be seen whether that will happen again this season. If the circumstances play out this season like they did last, and if the team doesn't finish the season mentally, then that hasn't improved at all.
But I think that the act of putting forth effort in the face of adversity is also something that needs to be learned, improved, and honed. Motivation isn't just something you have; it is a skill that can be developed. Sometimes, especially when things just continue to get more and more difficult, the simple act of trying can be a chore itself. And when those times come, you can fail to even give the effort. That's what happened at the end of last season. But when you get up from that failure, bootstrap yourself into some new found motivation, then you've again put yourself on the road to progress.
So I don't view the team's intermittent failures to keep trying when it looks like a lost cause as evidence that they haven't bought into the idea of continually improving. Each time it happens, it is a failure of effort at that moment that shouldn't happen. But each time they get back up for another practice or another game, it's another step forward. Process doesn't equal effort. Improving effort is part of the process.
2. Another thing that sold many Vol fans on Dooley in the wake of Kiffin was the promises of doing things right. The first thing he mentioned among his goals in his introductory press conference was integrity. He said "we're going to represent this institution with class, on and off the field." Specifically, Vol fans have taken this to include staying out of jail and succeeding in the classroom, in addition to showing the always hard to pin down "class." So our second question: has Derek Dooley forged a team with integrity, with class on and off the field? Whether winning or losing, do the Vols do the non-football things right?
What Brad had to say:
On one hand, I think you can look at the overall big picture and think Dooley has done a good job. On the other hand, look at the KEY personnel we've lost that would have made a massive difference. Da'Rick Rogers was one of the most talented players in the nation. He also was a stand-offish jerk who alienated teammates, coaches and did drugs. We had to kick him off just before the season, and that took away a key component of our offense. There's Cameron Clear, who stole from teammates and other athletes, who is now not on the team anymore. You're talking about an NFL tight end who would have really helped the running game. There's Izaeua Lanier -- our best cornerback -- who is academically ineligible this year and may never return. It also happens to be our weakest position. Vols fans everywhere know about the worst semester in a long time during last year's losing campaign that really undermined publicly one of the key components of the Vol For Life program. Dooley talks about recruiting different players who are high on academics, integrity, etc., but then we have a hiccup like that that wasn't just two or three players but rampant on the team. We fire our Vol For Life coordinator and now have hired another one, and you just wonder how much of it talk and how much is practice?
I think it's infinitely better than what it was under Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin. Do these things take time? Absolutely they do. Again, we're moving in the right direction, but we're not there. But you've got a guy like Darrington Sentimore who is pretty much allowed to say whatever he wants to to the media to the point of even embarrassing himself at times. You've got a player like Bray who has taunted opponents on the sideline before, and you wonder where the line is between having fun and winning with class. He's the face of our program for better or worse, and while I don't think he's done anything to warrant a negative label, he hasn't taken the leadership steps you'd like to see if you're a UT fan. Then you have a guy like Rogers who helped tear that team apart last year yet was allowed to stay on the team throughout the offseason because of his talent. I'm not really blaming Dooley here because I'd have done the same thing, but when he rewards you with getting booted off the team this close to the season, nobody wins. Again, Dooley has had bad luck follow him throughout his UT tenure.
So, I think that it has gotten much better, and the VFL program is terrific. But you've got key players who are no longer here or key players who need to prove that they're growing up in order to really believe it's working. I'm in love with the idea. The results just haven't backed it up enough yet. Everybody is going to have bad eggs from time to time, but we've really been hit with the loss of some important players that ultimately would have made a difference on the field.
What Will had to say:
I have no complaints here. I'm not worried about the NCAA with Dooley in charge, and while he did inherit some bar fighters and all that was Da'Rick Rogers, his discipline problems have still been fewer in quantity per year compared to Fulmer and quality compared to Kiffin's gas station robbery boys and general disregard for character. I really like his bell curve model in recruiting in terms of taking few character risks.
What I_S had to say:
Arrests are down from Kiffin and Fulmer. That's good. Dooley is taking fewer character risks in recruiting. Given the recent level of attrition, that's a necessity. And I won't give Dooley too much grief over Janzen Jackson and Da'Rick Rogers. I can't speak to rumors of other issues surrounding them, but you're going to have guys every now and again who will fail drug tests. It happens.
That said, I'm still not willing to pass Dooley on this category. Everyone who read Vols message boards knew that Cameron Clear was a thief weeks before he was arrested. It never came out in the media, which means Dooley chose to deal with it in house. Then he was arrested for another theft. This one came out in the media. Obviously, if I knew about Clear's thievery in advance, Dooley did too. And when you're dealing with criminal offenses, you have to handle them in such a way that the offense isn't duplicated a couple weeks later. The repeated nature makes this one a pretty big negative, and there's no Kiffin mitigation, as Clear was a Dooley recruit.
But the worst for me is the academic concerns. Because we missed a bowl last year, we never found out who still had academic work left to do, but word on the street says the list was long and frightening. We do know that Corey Miller would've missed a bowl, and that Izauea Lanier--our best player at a weak position--is ineligible for this season. Right now, progress reports have been sent around to TAs (I know, I just got asked to update the academic progress of the athletes in my class at UNC), and word is leaking out that there are again too many in trouble. If we make a bowl, we'll see how bad it really ended up. But what we know for certain is too much. If you're winning on the field, you can overcome the occasional grade issue. But if you're not winning on the field, you have to at least be keeping your guys in the game.
What Joel had to say:
I agree with Will here. It's not perfect, but that's to be expected with Dooley's whole bell curve recruiting notion. You give some risky guys some chances, and sometimes they'll let you down.
3. When Mike Hamilton introduced Dooley, among the adjectives he chose were "disciplined" and "organized." Dooley's organization and attention to detail have been lauded as making him supremely qualified to be a CEO-style head coach. So the third question: has Dooley built an organized, disciplined group that shows great attention to detail? This question deals with both the team on the field and with the organization more broadly, including recruiting and the like.
What Brad had to say:
Dooley is disciplined and organized almost to a fault in his daily life. Thus far, his team has not taken on those qualities. You can start way back with the 13 men on the field his first year against LSU. Then, as much as you'd like to say we've improved on those things, how many timeouts have the Vols called this year when just trying to get in proper personnel on special teams or 2-point conversions? I can remember two, and there may be more. Our false start penalties have killed us this year. There is no discipline in staying in rush lanes and not getting beat for big plays on defense. From a coaching standpoint, discipline was lax when we got down against Florida in staying balanced, calling the type of game that can keep defenses on their toes. Jim Chaney has had an overall really good year play-calling, I believe, but within the framework of drives, we've not stuck with some things (i.e., running the football) that got us to where we were.
I think from a recruiting standpoint -- and I have a little inside knowledge on this stuff -- this coaching staff has not been particularly organized and structured in identifying elite players early enough. Case in point: Vonn Bell would have been a Vol a long time ago if coaches offered him early. Unfortunately, it took Alabama and Georgia offering him before Bell was really on UT's radar. Whether he'd have stuck or not is another question, but now UT is in a dogfight just to get him to visit. Alabama freshman cornerback Geno Smith was a consensus four-star prospect who everybody in the nation wanted. He LOVED Tennessee, but when the assistant who was recruiting him left UT, the Vols were late to get his replacement recruiting him. There are other instances of this that just haven't been publicized. So while it's really hard to fault Dooley's early player evaluations because some of the guys few were on have turned out to be good SEC players, I'm not sure his staff has consistently identified quality difference-makers early who had a keen interest in UT. I've written this before, but it seems sometimes that Dooley and staff had rather go evaluate a diamond in the rough than sell the elite players that Tennessee is still a marquee program.
We've heard all about Dooley's structure. I'm not sure any of it has benefited the Vols in recruiting or on the football field. That is the most baffling part of his tenure to me.
What WIll had to say:
Their attention to detail both administratively and in recruiting has been impressive. They clearly trust their own evaluations in recruiting, and they put together that shiny new football building. On the field, their attention to detail has been lacking. It's not just thirteen guys on the field at LSU, it's a frequent misuse of timeouts, an aggression that seems to come and go at strange times, and this season a complete inability to do anything fundamentally well on defense. I'm sure the injuries weren't in Dooley's notebook when he took the job, nor were the endings of the LSU/UNC games. But none of us know if how to win a meaningful football game is in that notebook either.
What I_S had to say:
Unmitigated disaster. Absolutely unmitigated disaster. Perhaps the defense's failure of fundamentals can be attributed to a new system (although I'm skeptical), but how many illegal formation penalties did the offense get against Florida? How many illegal formation penalties did the punt team get against Mississippi State? We even had a player forget that a kickoff was a live ball for goodness sake. And that's not to mention wasting a key timeout in Athens because there weren't enough players on the field to defend a conversion attempt. Details, expected to be one of Dooley's biggest strengths, have been one of Tennessee's biggest weaknesses.
And it hasn't been much better off the field. Last year, an SEC-level recruit (he's now playing ball in Gainesville) drove from Delaware to the Orange and White Game on his own dime. The coaches didn't even know he was there. Then there's been Vonn Bell, Geno Smith, and Joshua Holsey. Finally, as many of you know, I have two cousins who are high-BCS level recruits. Although both have committed elsewhere by now, I won't give specifics, as I don't want my thoughts to reflect poorly on them. But you wouldn't believe how hard it's been to getting the recruiting office to pay attention. Trust me, it's not an issue of quality or lack of trying on our part. It's a recruiting office that seems disturbingly disorganized.
What Joel had to say:
I've kept this to myself so far, but I've heard stories of the dark side of this whole "detail-oriented" aspect of Dooley's personality. Sometimes it sounds like it borders on obsessive-compulsive and leads to micro-managing. One of the common defenses of Dooley is that he's a nice guy, and I'm actually not convinced of that. I like covering him because he's interesting and funny at times, but he may actually be more like Nick Saban than we think.
Us Lifehacker addicts know that you can waste your entire life coming up with the perfect to do system and never actually get anything done. So maybe Dooley impressed Hamilton with his binder and his system, but as with many things, one's strength can also be one's greatest weakness. I'm thinking maybe he should spend less time on the details and more time on the most important things.
4. Is there anything else you feel that Dooley has made a priority? Has he succeeded in implementing it?
What Brad had to say:
Three things Dooley has made an emphasis on that he should be lauded for his successes:
- Meeting recruiting needs: People want to rave about Lane Kiffin's class ranking, but where are those kids now? Dooley has gotten kids who've stayed in the program and has really outfitted our roster well for the future, whether he's here or not. Kiffin may recruit six wide receivers when he needed three wide receivers, an offensive lineman and two defensive linemen. Dooley identifies needs and goes and gets bodies -- normally kids who seem to be good players -- to fill those needs. At no point in the past decade has UT's defensive line been in a better position than it is now. Same with offensive line and wide receiving corps. Same with quarterbacks. Though we're shallow at linebacker and defensive back, that's mainly because of injuries or defections and not because of sheer numbers. Dooley has recruited two defensive back classes, and though they've yet to prove they're SEC caliber down the board, we've got players there. I never worry about meeting needs in recruiting.
- Facility upgrades: Dooley has been very hands-on in what needs to be done from a facilities standpoint, meticulous in how they need to be done and I think that we're in better shape as a program because of it.
- Upgrading the running game: Though it's inexplicable to me that this was ever an issue when Dooley first came on [he should have immediately hired a running backs coach] he saw what a huge disaster it was last year and he went out and fixed it by hiring one of the best in the country -- Jay Graham. No matter who coaches the Vols next year, Graham should still be here.
What Will had to say:
I do think he deserves credit, along with Jim Chaney and Jay Graham, for making the run game a priority and seeing it take shape and truly get better every week this fall. If we weren't committed to that long ago we could've been really screwed by Da'Rick. They've done a really great job running the football especially considering all the outside factors, and Dooley deserves some credit there. Overall I would be really curious to know how close we are to where he thought we would be three years ago.
What I_S had to say:
When Dooley was introduced, he said he wasn't trying to hire the very best coach in the country at every position, but to hire a staff that did their jobs effectively and worked well together. That didn't happen. Of his original staff, only Jim Chaney (a Kiffin holdover) and Darin Hinshaw remain, and none left because they were getting promotions elsewhere. People still speculate over who was asked to leave due to ineffectiveness and who just wanted out, but either option reflects poorly on Dooley's first staff. Either he picked guys who weren't good coaches, or he picked guys that didn't mesh well and wanted out. On his second try, he managed an absolutely fantastic hire in Jay Graham, who will hopefully stay in Knoxville no matter who coaches next year. But that first round of hires gives me no confidence in Dooley's ability to consistently select guys who can work together and make Tennessee better.
What Joel had to say:
Yeah, Dooley should get credit for getting the run game turned around, even if all he did was hire Jay Graham. And if you look at my statistical rankings posts, there are indications of improvements in most areas in which he's not completely starting over this season.
But the staff thing is troublesome. It goes back to my suspicion that Dooley, as much as we love him as bloggers and fans, may not be the best boss. He may be trying to be Nick Saban, but I don't think Nick Saban could be Nick Saban here at Tennessee in these times. You can be a task master jerk when you're the head of a well-oiled killing machine, but we're not that, and if this is the case, then not adapting to the situation and altering his style was a serious mistake that may have cost him his staff last season and his job this season.
So there you have it. All of it. I know it's a lot, but I hope it's interesting. There are some areas where we've all agreed that Dooley has failed. There are some areas where some of us see reason for optimism. Are the success in Dooley's high priority areas enough to convince you that the wins will come? Are the failures in Dooley's high priority areas enough to convince you they won't?
One thing's for sure: should Dooley pull a miracle in Neyland on Saturday, the win/loss argument will change drastically, and those who have held out hope this far will have new and exciting reasons for optimism. For those who haven't? A lot will still depend on how the Vols play and whether the answers change to these questions.