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On Failing Fast: Dooley's Rommel Lesson on Fear and Boldness Pays Dividends with Tyler Bray

Think back with me to late October, 2010. The Tennessee Volunteers were sitting at 2-5 with the two wins being in overtime over UAB and against an FCS opponent. The October stretch had been particularly brutal starting with the heartbreak against LSU and continuing with a 41-14 loss to Georgia and a 41-10 loss to Alabama.

We all knew the team was rebuilding, but progress was getting increasingly difficult to see. Rocky Top had become unfamiliar, and all attempts to get out of the funk had failed, including a desperate insertion of true freshman Tyler Bray into the game against Alabama along with two true freshmen at wide receiver and three more on the o-line. That gamble resulted in a series that included two incomplete passes, three penalties, and a punt. There seemed to be no way out.

It was in this context that Dooley let loose his Where's Rommel speech:



Underneath the entertainment, that was a message about fear and its antidote, boldness. It was a message to the team that when the plan falls apart, doing nothing because you fear the consequences is not an option. Do something, and if it doesn't work out, do something again. And again and again and again until something works. Because doing nothing (or waiting for somebody else to act) only gets you beat.

Against South Carolina, Dooley got an opportunity to show his team exactly what he was talking about. Matt Simms and the rest of the team had not played all that poorly -- the game was tied at the half -- but Simms taking a sack, fumbling the ball, and giving the Gamecocks seven points certainly wasn't part of the plan. And when he did it again with another seven point consequence on the first drive of the third quarter, Dooley decided to do something, and he put the same Tyler Bray who had vapor locked the prior week against Alabama in the game.

This time, Bray was courageous and in command -- and he threw a pick six on his first pass attempt. What had been a tie game at the half was now 24-10 after only three series. 

But Dooley's Rommel message wasn't not to make mistakes, it was to not make the mistake of allowing fear to defeat you, and he put the game back into the hands of Bray, and we all know what happened after that. The team first merely survived a series without suffering a major catastrophe, and on the following series, it was "Hello, Tyler Bray" and his Man-Sized Throw. And then Bray began to click. And although the Vols lost to the Gamecocks that day, Bray seized the starting gig, and the Vols won their next four games to become bowl eligible.

Dooley's Where's Rommel routine was about inexperience as much as it was fear and courage, but the only remedy for inexperience is experience. As a general rule, experience comes only comes with time and reps, but the process can be hastened by making bold rather than timid decisions. At best, a courageous decision can pay off immediately, and at worst, it enables one to "fail fast" and to thereby gain experience quickly, which is what we saw at South Carolina last October and what we should expect to see more of this fall.