Say the name out loud: Derek Dooley. Now whisper it. Yell it. Scribble it on paper in several different colors.
Nope, no matter what you do, it’s very difficult to get excited about that name leading the Tennessee football program.
When UT athletic director Mike Hamilton’s latest hire reached my ears on Friday afternoon, initial reaction was simple: Who?
After a quick glance at Dooley’s head coaching record, I almost tossed my laptop out the window. 17-20 at … Louisiana Tech? 17-20 against Western Athletic Conference teams? Does Hamilton care about who runs this program anymore?
For a while, it seemed easy to write off Tennessee football from the get-go. A guy who couldn’t reach a .500 record at LA Tech couldn’t stand a chance against SEC-caliber programs.
So, as a fan (or a sportswriter), why get excited?
Take a moment and dig deeper into Dooley’s coaching resume. Dooley spent years on Nick Saban’s staff at LSU and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Had he chosen to, Dooley could have followed Saban to Alabama and been patrolling the sidelines of this year’s BCS National Championship, likely snagging his second championship ring (he won one with LSU in 2003) in the process.
Instead, he followed his dream and inherited a lackluster program in the bayou. A program that, while 17-20 during his tenure, finished 8-5 in 2008 with its first bowl bid and victory in 30 years. He also served as athletic director for two of his three years in Ruston. Imagine the stress.
Of course, comparing Louisiana Tech and Tennessee is apples to oranges. You can’t recruit at a place like Louisiana Tech, which heavily relies on the in-state scraps LSU leaves behind. But for a man who handled recruiting on a championship-winning LSU squad, Tennessee is a place he can, and should, recruit.
Dooley’s introductory press conference on Friday night shed light on the personality of Hamilton’s newest hire, and I’m here to tell you, Vol fans shouldn’t throw Dooley under the bus just yet.
First and foremost, Dooley has brains. He boasts a law degree from Georgia, and after balancing his coaching duties at Louisiana Tech with the job of athletic director, he knows about time management. Word has it that Dooley plans his entire season, practices and whatnot, down to a T (no pun intended).
Displaying his intellect, Dooley quickly established himself as the anti-Lane Kiffin. He assured gathered media and boosters that he is not a “sound bite” guy and wants to lead Tennessee the right way.
What a refreshing idea.
Dooley paid homage to former Tennessee coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer in his speech. He talked of UT’s success in the SEC. He outwardly commended General Neyland’s “Game Maxims” displayed proudly next to his podium.
“I’m glad to see I believed in everything up there,” Dooley said.
He is embracing Tennessee tradition. How many times could Kiffin say that?
Don’t get me wrong; I loved Kiffin. After the success he found with the team he was handed, I found myself high atop the Kiffin bandwagon. Had he stayed longer, I truly believe Kiffin and his staff would have resurrected the Tennessee program.
But Kiffin was not a moral person. He failed to seize tradition at UT, instead insisting on creating the Southern Cal of the East. Judging by his brushes with the NCAA, Kiffin enjoyed tarnishing tradition rather than savoring it.
But Dooley appears genuine, hard-working and, most importantly, excited. The smiles of he and his family didn’t disappear during the press conference. He finally has that big-time coaching job and couldn’t be happier. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, so if someone seems genuine and honest, it’s hard for me not to like them or at least give them a chance (call it a weakness, if you will).
Will Dooley be able to sit in the same living rooms as Urban Meyer and Saban and remain competitive in recruiting? Only time will tell. But with a mentor like Saban and a deep past in SEC recruiting, it’s entirely possible Hamilton found a sleeper in the coaching ranks.