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Barbara Dooley may not want to hear it, but by the end of October her son is going to be squarely on the hot seat at Tennessee. That’s if anyone cares enough to put a coach on the hot seat at Tennessee anymore. Last week just 76,000 fans bothered to show up for the game against Buffalo. You know, Buffalo, the team Tennessee paid a million dollars to keep from playing North Carolina.
A program’s biggest enemy isn’t anger, frustration, dismay or even hate. It’s apathy. And right now the University of Tennessee fan base is dangerously apathetic.
On Saturday night a very mediocre, undisciplined Georgia team rolled in to Neyland Stadium, once one of the fiercest home venues in all of sports, and waited for the once mighty Tennessee Volunteers, a team even more mediocre and undisciplined, to self-destruct. That finally happened on the first drive of the second half when, tied 6-6, Tennessee failed to execute an incredibly complicated play called the “snap.”
Volunteer quarterback Tyler Bray fell on the loose football, the Vols shanked a punt, and several plays later Georgia scored on a short field to take a 13-6 lead that the Bulldogs would never relinquish. Not even when the Bulldogs managed to face a 4th and 57. (A Georgia friend texted me that you should get points when the punt fails to reach the first down marker.)
When the Vols weren’t taking timeouts for being unable to get lined up, wasting a third and inches with a delay of game penalty late in the third quarter, or pounding the football into a line of scrimmage with as little success as the Situation had throwing himself into a concrete Italian wall, they were struggling to get off the field on defense. It appeared that Tennessee’s defensive gameplan was to allow Georgia receivers to run past them and then hope that Aaron Murray couldn’t complete deep passes to wide open receivers. For most of the night Murray obliged, missing wide open receiver time after time. Then, finally, he hit Mitchell for 71 yards.
Suddenly it was 20-6 and just like that the energy from a night game at Neyland Stadium was drained.
This was the game that Derek Dooley had to win leading in to LSU and Alabama. Win this game and the long October to come would have been survivable without any hot seat worries. But he and his team couldn’t get it done and 0 for an SEC October is likely again. This means that the entire 2012 season, one in which the Vols are still going to be unlikely to be better than 8-4, will be a prolonged exercise in hot seat talk. It’s becoming an all too familiar chorus in Knoxville, one flop after another. By the time Halloween rolls around the Vols will be 3-4 and facing a must win game against South Carolina. Lose that one and Dooley will be 3-5 with a road game at Arkansas. Lose that one and the Vols will be 3-6 for the third time in four years. The first time a team went 3-6 a national championship winning coach just over a year removed from winning the SEC East was fired at Tennessee.
Three years later Vol fans will shrug their shoulders. Losing has become commonplace and accepted. The Volunteer football program’s goals have started to look an awful lot like Ole Miss’s, fight and claw for that one year in five when you’ve got a chance to be decent.
Put simply, Dooley’s 2011 campaign is beginning to look an awful lot like his 2010 one, .500 football with a 6-6 team rolling in to a crummy bowl game. At least this year there will be a ten second runoff rule. Of course Dooley will probably find a way to lose a game because of the ten second runoff this year.
But why should Tennessee fans expect anything else from Derek Dooley? He’s a .500 coach. When other major programs have a chance to make a big time hire, they spend money to hire quality coaches. Tenneseee insists on hiring coaches who haven’t won anything. That’s the mantra in football and basketball now — it’s the reason the Vols are the only program in the conference with a football and basketball coach who have just one bowl win and no NCAA tournament appearances between them.
Meet Tennessee — the only $100 million athletic program that spends money on coaches like its a Sunbelt wannabe.
Faced with failure, Alabama spent money and hired Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins. Tennessee bought a cut-rate Nick Saban with a sub .500 record at Louisiana Tech. Dooley couldn’t even dominate in the WAC.
Indeed, Tennessee’s savior, Derek Dooley is now 18 games into his tenure at Tennessee and he’s a robust 9-9. All nine of those wins have come against teams with sub .500 records. Lest we criticize unfairly, Dooley’s also undefeated against SEC stalwarts Kentucky and Vanderbilt. So far, anyway. Dooley is a great guy — I’d challenge you to find anyone, anywhere who dislikes him — but his most memorable moments at Tennessee both involve finding unbelievable ways to lose. Now in his fifth year as a head coach he’s 26-28. It’s easy to give someone who has been successful before the benefit of the doubt, but at this point Derek Dooley has pretty much the exact same record in his coaching career at Tennessee that he had at Louisiana Tech.
He wins half his game and loses half his games. (And by the way, it’s not Louisiana Tech was being built for success, they’re bad now too).
Optimism is hard to find.
The best Volunteer offensive play of the night? UT running back Marlin Lane pretended his knee didn’t touch the ground, fooled the officials, and sprinted down field for a touchdown. Instant replay review took that touchdown away and the Vols wouldn’t score until Tyler Bray injured his thumb — given UT’s luck it’s almost certainly broken — and came out of the game for Matt Simms in the final moments of the contest.
Again and again Derek Dooley returns to youth as an excuse for why his team isn’t good enough, but the SEC East teams that are beating Tennessee are young too. News flash, Georgia and Florida are bad this year. Do you know what year the running back is who gouged you? Freshman. Do you know what year the wide receiver is who your corners couldn’t cover? Freshman. Florida and Georgia are worse than they’ve both been in the same season since the SEC went to divisional play. Let me repeat, this is the worst Florida and Georgia have been in a generation. Do you know how many yards rushing Tennessee put up against these two teams?
I asked Derek Dooley why Vol fans should expect him to beat Florida and Georgia when they’re good if he can’t beat them when they’re bad and he bristled, first saying that he didn’t pay attention to whether Florida or Georgia are good or bad this year and eventually ending with, “We’ll get them.”
Why should any Vol fan believe that? Florida and Georgia are better than UT now and they’re not going to get worse between this year and next year. They’ll both be better than Tennessee again next year and the year after and the year after. At least as long as this rebuilding “plan” continues to be executed.
Increasingly Tennessee fans are beginning to fear that Derek Dooley is Mike Shula with a law degree, the son of a successful coaching spawn who didn’t have what it took to succeed on his own.
Asked whether his program was improving Dooley compared his coaching work to watering bamboo. When it was clear no one understood the gardening analogy, Dooley explained that you have to water bamboo every day and it appears nothing at all is happening. Then all of a sudden the bamboo shoots up in a hurry.
Derek Dooley’s been watering for two years (five years if you count Louisana Tech), and his bamboo looks no different than when he started. That bamboo better grow in a damn hurry or he’s going to have a lot more time on his hands to tend to his plants.
The question remains: If Derek Dooley and Tennessee can’t beat either rival SEC East team now or even run for positive offensive yardage, why should anyone believe that Tennessee is going to beat Georgia or Florida when both teams are better? Is Tennessee going to suddenly leapfrog over teams that are just as young and already better than them? You’re welcome to believe that. But you’re also welcome to believe that Derek Dooley isn’t on the hot seat.
The reality is, whether his momma wants to believe it or not: Derek Dooley will be on the hot seat by the time Halloween gets here. In a season of costumes even his orange pants can’t disguise that fact.
And it’s about to be a long, hot October in Knoxville.