John Shearer: Sad Derek Dooley Tale

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - by John Shearer

When I think about the situation regarding Derek Dooley, I am saddened more than anything else.

As a diehard University of Georgia alumnus and football fan, I can understand why fans want their teams to win enough games, especially if they have a past history of championships.

It is human nature to want to become associated with something larger than we are, even if most of us probably take it a little too far regarding sports teams or our alma maters. 

But as one who lives in Knoxville now and has observed coach Dooley and his family up close and away from Neyland Stadium, I hate it for him and still wonder if his possible dismissal after three seasons is completely fair.

I had first seen Derek in 1979 as an elementary school youngster running around the now-razed Georgia athletic dorm, McWhorter Hall, when I was trying to play football as a walk-on. His family, including his father -- head football coach Vince Dooley -- were eating Thanksgiving dinner there, and Derek was apparently running off some turkey, as most 11-year-olds like to do.

And when Derek was named as the new football coach at Tennessee, I was ecstatic, especially after observing him and his family at his press conference. He had been a high school valedictorian who played football at Virginia and had gone to law school, but he still seemed to have some great Southern manners and grace.

Shortly after recruiting season ended in early 2010, about the time I was thinking about writing him a letter and welcoming him to Knoxville as someone who had played football under his father as an anonymous walk-on, my wife and I were sitting in the United Methodist church we attend in Knoxville and saw Derek and his family.

I eventually wrote him a letter, explaining my past connection with his family and saying I thought I had also seen him in church.

Within a few days, he wrote me back a kind note.

He and his family have continued to worship at the church, and I have spoken to them on occasion when they were sitting or walking nearby. However, I never have taken the time to refresh his memory about my letter and my past connection to Georgia. Other people generally greet them as well, as can be expected, and I just have not wanted to take up their time.

I continued to pull for Derek’s team to do well while enjoying seeing his press conferences in which he had humorous one-liners. At times, his voice sounded like his father’s and at other times I could tell he was definitely from Athens, Ga., just by his mannerisms.

I even occasionally observed him in other settings. On one or two occasions when I was teaching some journalism classes at UT, I would be getting out of my truck in the parking lot near Neyland Stadium, and I would see a cart zoom by.

On it would be coach Dooley trying to eat a meal quickly while being escorted by a student manager or assistant from his weekly press conference at Neyland Stadium back to the football offices. Such is the busy life of a major college football coach.

Well, fast forward to this year. It was obviously a season in which Tennessee needed to win a certain number of games, since the challenging rebuilding job had been slow moving during his first couple of years.

Unfortunately, the team now sits at 4-6, and the vast majority of Tennessee fans think the time has come for a coaching change.

Three years are probably not long enough, especially when one considers that successful football coaches Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Bill McCartney at Colorado (now retired) had slow starts, as did former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.

I hate it for coach Dooley, especially since he seems to be trying to recruit players with character and his teams have had some horrible luck. The Vols could have easily won the games against Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and, of course, Missouri. Florida was also close until the fourth quarter.

Ironically, his father’s Georgia teams were always known for winning more of the close games than they lost and for having a good defense – two problems that have plagued Derek this year.

If Tennessee does not enjoy solid wins over both Vanderbilt and Kentucky in their final two games and he is fired, I will certainly be disappointed for Derek, knowing the negative effect it will have on his family.

But I will also understand.

The coaches are given good financial compensation, and the fans and officials of a school expect to receive some compensation as well in the form of an adequate number of victories – especially if the team has a rich tradition.

It is just part of the crazy world of sports in which we live.

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