Please forgive me if I'm not buying Roy Exum's sweet defense of Derek Dooley, or his confidence in UT Athletic Director Dave Hart as a sterling exemplar of both character and competence.
I have no idea whether or not Derek Dooley will be fired after the South Carolina game. However, if he is, there aren't too many alumni, that I know, who'll protest that it wasn't deserved - given the clown car comedy of errors that has characterized Coach Dooley's tenure, and despite people like Mr. Exum's best efforts to perpetually blame Coach Fulmer and Lane Kiffin.
Neither am I convinced that Dave Hart, who was cashiered at Florida State, who presided over one of the biggest academic cheating scandals in NCAA history, and who never had a scintilla of influence in the hiring of even the most lowly graduate assistant during the tenure of Bobby Bowden, is either competent or trustworthy in determining what's best for the University.
Now...Ole Roy...who never got within 10 feet of the shadow of Auburn's Pat Dye, that he didn't just swoon, wants us to believe that he has UT's best interests at heart? Please forgive me, but in this regard, I'm a wee bit more inclined to trust Mr. Travis. At least in terms of what's best for Tennessee football.
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Throw me in with Lonnie in the "Legion of the Miserable" as Roy calls it. Roy mentions a number of factors that help to explain the struggles of the UT football team the past few years, and a lot of those points are valid. The program was an absolute mess after Kiffin bolted for USC, and Dooley has done a great job of restoring integrity, and rebuilding the roster.
Here's the thing though, we're now in year three of the Dooley era, and the on-field product isn't improving the way it should with this roster. I was a Dooley supporter and defender until the Florida game this year, which is when I really started to question him, and then after the Mississippi State game I really felt Dooley doesn't have the chops to cut it in the SEC.
The reasons are pretty simple. Dooley now has three of his own recruiting classes playing for him. Yes, that at-the-time top 10 class that Kiffin reeled in for the 2009 class was one of the biggest busts in recruiting history, but this team is full of players Dooley signed in 2010, 2011 and 2012. You could make the argument that it's not completely Dooley's team, and that next year it will (would?) be, because he will have signed everyone on the roster. That doesn't change the fact that the vast majority of these guys are Dooley's players, and they still aren't getting it done.
What's more startling is to look at the recruiting rankings of the classes that have been signed. Two of the classes were top-15, with one being ranked 17th. Is this team playing like a top-15, or even a top-25 team? Not even close.
UT's one SEC win last year was an overtime win at home against Vanderbilt, a team with much less talent. UT lost to Kentucky last year, snapping a 26-year winning streak, when Kentucky started a wide receiver at quarterback that hadn't taken a snap under center in his college career before that game. Again, look at Kentucky's roster and you will see which team was better on paper.
Even after this, I supported Dooley because of the hand he was dealt, and the youth and injuries the team had to deal with last year. This year was different though. Dooley hired a nearly completely new coaching staff, had as healthy of a roster as you can hope for in football, and a junior-laden team with almost as much experience as any team in the nation due to the fact that these guys played so much as freshman and sophomores. No, I don't think anyone expected this team to win the SEC East, but they should have been able to compete for it.
The Florida game showed a few troubling things. One, UT flat-out got outcoached in the 2nd half. Two, the team once again laid down when the going got tough, a knock on Dooley's teams from his first two years. And finally, UT was favored going into that game, College Gameday was in town, and Neyland was rocking like it hasn't in years. That was the opportunity for Dooley, and this team, to take that big step to turn the corner in the rebuilding process. Through a combination of factors, they let that opportunity slip through their fingers.
Well coached teams don't make the mistakes that this team makes. Blown assignments, blown coverage, and lack of attention to detail are all signs that this team isn't being properly prepared. This team fought hard in Georgia, and lost a heartbreaker. They were still at 3-2, and had a bye week before they traveled to MSU. UT was favored once again in that game, and looking at the schedule with Alabama and South Carolina coming up, it looked like a must-win game for this team to have a successful year. The team came out completely flat in the first half, and looked like a high school team. If you can't get your players focused and ready for an SEC game with serious bowl implications on the line, and an extra week to prepare, it's hard to believe that you'll ever get this team challenging for SEC titles against the likes of the Sabans, Spurriers, Richts and Miles of the world.
I have long supported Dooley, and will continue to while he coaches this team, but I certainly won't be the least bit upset if a coaching change is made. No one needs to feel bad for Dooley. He's a very intelligent guy that knew what he was getting into. He's making millions of dollars a year, and even if he does get fired, he has a heck of a golden parachute. If you go back and look at comments Dooley made the past couple of years and then during this past off-season, it's pretty clear that Dooley felt he finally had a team to make a run this year, even stating at SEC Media Day's that the league, "Won't have Tennessee to kick around anymore." Unfortunately, they're still getting kicked around.