By: Daniel Lewis Twitter: DanieLewisUTCBS
Is Dooley still the right man in Knoxville? AP Photo/ James Crisp
Let’s start by getting one thing straight. What happened to Tennessee Saturday at Kentucky was a fire-able offense for head coach Derek Dooley. I’m not saying he deserves to be fired on the spot, but that individual performance was nothing short of a failure by the head coach and the entire team. It was the type of performance that could get you fired in certain situations.
There is no excuse to lose to Kentucky, especially that Kentucky team. They were 1-7 in SEC play, missing both quarterbacks in Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton and started wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback. They threw six passes the entire game – none of them very far past the line of scrimmage. Despite having a respectable pass defense and a couple of NFL prospects on defense, Kentucky also came into the game ranked No. 100 in rushing defense.
With the exception of falling to Wyoming in 2008 the week after Phillip Fulmer’s forced resignation, I don’t know that any loss is more embarrassing to Tennessee in the past 15 to 20 years. But perhaps even worse were the parting words from senior running back Tauren Poole:
“The whole game, no one wanted to be out there,” Poole said. “We’re all trying to encourage people because people were out of it. When it’s like that, you’re not going to be able to execute, I don’t care where you’re at.”
Senior linebacker Austin Johnson also chimed in with a shot at the lack of team effort, “This team is young and there’s too many guys that it’s all about them, their stats and stuff,” he said.
Sounds like a bad team, a team without leadership and a team in need of new direction. But recent history provides a problem that Tennessee fans are going to have to deal with this offseason, and potentially even the next. Even if Derek Dooley is not the right man to lead the program back to greatness, the University is not in a position to fire their head football coach right now. And here’s why:
Losing Bray to injury for part of the season was costly. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Stability, or the lack there of, is perhaps the biggest reason the program finds itself in their current situation. Will Shelton at Rocky Top Talk did a much better job than I could in this space of showing how the current roster got in the shape it is. In a nutshell, three coaches in three years plus a smattering of recruiting busts set the program back several years back. The roster isn’t lose-to-Kentucky-with-a-receiver-at-quarterback bad, but clearly isn’t up to standards for reasons that are partially out of Dooley’s control.
A fourth coaching change in five years would do nothing but perpetuate that cycle. Imagine if the current roster lost another ten players or so with another coaching change. Imagine if freshman quarterback Justin Worley packed his bags, quarterback commitment Nathan Peterman changed his mind and Tyler Bray leaves after next season. It’s back to square one there, and that situation could unfold at a number of positions.
Clay Travis of Outkickthecoverage.com has an idea he calls the ‘dump truck plan.’ He wants to drive around the country with a dump truck full of five million dollars and offer big-time, proven coaches until one of them says yes to the Tennessee job.
I think he has a point. Tennessee has underpaid their head coaches. Despite being close to the highest athletic budget in the conference, Dooley and basketball coach Cuonzo Martin are paid more than a million dollars less combined than Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari.
The problem is that if Dooley is fired this offseason, that dump truck full of cash might turn into a minivan. Dooley, the former lawyer, was smart when crafting his contract. He knew the situation he was taking over and likely knew a day like this would come when some would be calling for his head. The buyout should he be fired during the first three years of his contract is five million dollars, and only drops to four million after the third year before eventually falling to 2.5 million.
Add in severance money still being paid to Phillip Fulmer (yes, still happening), former basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former baseball coach Todd Raleigh, and all of a sudden the idea that Tennessee has five million plus a year to throw around may not be as true.
3. Setting the table
The failures of this season may not cost Dooley his job now, but it will do nothing but increase the pressure in the next year or two. It has put him in the situation that next season likely needs to show major improvement if he wants to stick around. That means one of two scenarios is likely to unfold in Knoxville in the next year or two:
A. The team gets a lot better and Dooley keeps his job.
I know it’s hard to envision after Saturday, but I think there’s a chance this still happens. Next year’s team should be as good if not better at every position with the exception of possibly defensive tackle, where there should be some drop-off from the loss of senior Malik Jackson. Justin Hunter, an-NFL-type-talent at receiver, will return along with 2010’s second-leading tackler in linebacker Herman Lathers. I know there are still questions about special teams, running back etc., but the roster will be better next year, no doubt.
B. Dooley is fired and Tennessee is an attractive job again
Dooley was hired under the worst of situations. It was a few weeks before signing day, the NCAA was snooping around and the roster was bare. If Dooley were to be fired after the 2012 season after let’s say a 7-5 effort, none of those problems would be there to hinder a candidate. I would venture to say that with Tennessee’s new facilities, the decent roster that would be left, a stable AD and with the extra money to spend, the Tennessee job would again be a top-ten destination for a coach at that point.
Firing him now would prevent either one of those favorable situations from happening. Furthermore, it would scare potential candidates if they see a trigger-happy administration that gave up on a coach after just two years.
So despite the humiliation of Saturday’s loss and the understandable uncertainty heading forward, now is not the time to let go of Derek Dooley. I understand this fanbase. I understand the desire to win now and to be a respected program. I understand the frustration of being blown out by Alabama, losing to a bad Florida team and seeing a 26-year win streak broken to Kentucky.
It’s a process though. Tennessee didn’t fall from national champions to SEC East cellar dwellers overnight, and won’t return to the top that quickly either. Dooley may or may not be the long-term answer, but he’s the man in charge at the moment, and Tennessee can’t afford for that to change yet.
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