The story goes that Barbara Dooley was driving around Atlanta last fall when she heard these sports-talk guys saying her son was on the hot seat. Barbara’s husband, Vince, was the greatest coach Georgia ever had. But then Derek got the head job at Tennessee and Barbara started wearing orange, even when the Vols came to Athens. So when she heard these guys laying into her boy, she drove to the station and stood up for him on the radio. “You’ve probably got the greatest coach in the COUNTRY!” she said. “And he’s gonna be there 25 years.”
Barbara Dooley is an awesome mom. Sadly, Derek Dooley is not an awesome coach.
Tennessee fired him Sunday. They had to. On Saturday the Vols played Vanderbilt. Vandy is Tennessee’s in-state rival in the same way the Washington Generals are the Harlem Globetrotters’ rival. Tennessee had won 28 of the last 29. Just last year, Dooley got caught on tape saying “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the s--- out of Vanderbilt.” Saturday night, while everybody else watched Baylor beat Kansas State and Stanford beat Oregon, Vanderbilt kicked the s--- out of Tennessee, 41-18.
Dooley had a losing record all three years at Tennessee. The Vols haven’t had three straight losing seasons since 1909-11. Tennessee has to beat Kentucky to avoid being the first Vols team to ever go winless in SEC play. So, yeah, his time in Knoxville was historic.
To be honest, nothing in particular suggested Dooley would be the right guy for Tennessee. He grew up watching his dad, of course. And he was an assistant under Nick Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. In his only previous head coaching job, at Louisiana Tech, he was 17-20 in three years.
But he came along at a time when Tennessee football was an emotional wreck. The school broke up with Phil Fulmer after 2008, even though he won a national title and had just two losing seasons in 17 years. Lane Kiffin arrived in 2009 promising championships; he went 7-6, bolted for USC and left the Vols weeping on the steps. Dooley was stable, good with kids, came from a great background. It was a classic rebound relationship.
No school can take losing forever, but Tennessee has built itself into a school that has to win. If those 102,000 seats in Neyland Stadium don’t fill up, if the docks on the Tennessee River aren’t crowded with wealthy boosters in the Volunteer Navy, if “Rocky Top” isn’t playing 50 times a game … it affects the whole state. Tennessee plays Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama every year. It’s hard to be great with those obstacles. But that’s the standard. Nobody at Tennessee, or any other football power, survives three losing years in a row.
And with every loss, Dooley’s quirks stood out more. His micromanagement extended to shower discipline. His fashion experiments made him look like he wandered in from the dentist’s office. Last month he had surgery to fix a fractured hip, and ended up coaching from a stool on the sideline. It actually took some courage to stand on the sideline with a freshly repaired hip. But seeing him there on the stool for the Alabama game just looked … goofy. Especially after Tennessee lost by 31.
Now Tennessee fans want a big name. Jon Gruden tops the list. Gruden was a graduate assistant coach at Tennessee in the ‘80s, and he’s married to a former Vols cheerleader. He hasn’t said he wants to coach at Tennessee or anywhere else; in fact, over and over again, he’s said he’s happy on “Monday Night Football.” But Vols fans parse every bit of Gruden info for a sign. He mentioned Eric Berry on TV the other night! Even said he was from Tennessee! He’s speaking to us in code!
Jon Gruden might come to Tennessee. It’s more likely he won’t. I was emailing back and forth with novelist Inman Majors the other day – he’s written a great novel about college football that I’ll tell you more about soon. He’s also the nephew of Johnny Majors, the legendary Tennessee coach, and knows the program well. Inman said something I think is true: It’s harder to win at Tennessee than it is at Georgia or Florida or Texas because there’s just not as much football talent in the state. You have to get every great player from Tennessee and some from the border states, too. Coaches understand this. They also understand that Tennessee’s athletic department is running in the red because of buyouts to Fulmer and former basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Dooley adds to the debt; he’ll get $5 million for not coaching the Vols.
Dooley is 44, not a kid by any stretch. He’ll find football work somewhere. But the head coach at a major football school is like a financial manager: The team is a stock, and the coach can’t let its value fall. The fans are ruthless shareholders.
The more I listen to that awesome bit of Barbara Dooley on the radio, the more I try to imagine another coach’s mama doing that. I just can’t see it. But when Barbara Dooley did it, it felt right. I think somehow that says something about her son. In the context of big-time college football, he seemed like a boy. And Lord help a boy in this man’s game.