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Tonight Derek Dooley debuted a new outfit, a massive white smock that seemed designed, if necessary, to stamp out any flames emerging from his hot seat.
That or to allow him to eschew halftime talks in favor of expressionist paintings.
He also wore boat shoes, which even when Dooley caught his feet in the turf and took a tumble, had a calming effect. Even as ESPN piped in its talking heads debating what would happen if Dooley lost this game, the Volunteer head coach was too busy bopping to his own island beat to notice. Boat shoes, a loose smock, and orange pants, meet devil may care Derek, just back from buying a round of bushwackers for his boating friends at the island bar. I halfway expected for Jimmy Buffett to be piped into the headset during stoppage in play.
He may not have had a cheeseburger in paradise, but he did have a Bray in Atlanta, which would do for a night.
Yep, Southern hippie Dooley was going to his happy place, a sideline that suddenly hummed with new offensive weapons. Not least of those weapons was junior college wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson, a five-star recruit whose services Dooley lined up by giving a graduate assistant job to his former coach. As bargains go, about halfway through the first quarter, this looked like the best deal since Auburn paid off the Newton family.
Patterson, sporting a large hair net that also doubled as a jetfuel pack, spent the entire first quarter humiliating North Carolina State defensive back David Amerson. You might remember Amerson, last year he intercepted 13 passes and this year he was reputed to be among the best defensive backs in the country. On the Vols first scoring play — a beautiful 41 yard double move throw from Bray to Patterson — Amerson was beaten so badly Patterson had time to text message Da’Rick Rogers, doubtlessly smoking pot on his Cookeville futon — “Could have been you, chump,” — and still snag the touchdown pass.
Up next Tyler Bray uncorked a bottle rocket of a throw that spiraled up into the expansive canopy of the Georgia Dome and came plummeting back down to the green turf nestling firmly into the arms of fourth year senior Zach Rogers.
Bray sauntered down the field like he’d just hummed a beer bottle into the open window of a Smart car.
After a safety, the Vols took over and went to Cordarrelle again, jet fuel action pack lit, Patterson streaked down the right sideline, cut back across the entire field, saw Amonson, with the angle, coming after him and proceeded to erase that angle, streaking past a flailing would be All-American. Just like that it was 22-7 and the Vols had scored more points in a quarter than in any quarter of any game since way back in 2000.
Simultaneously the name Cordarrelle surged to the top ten most popular baby names in the state of Tennessee. In fact, Patterson needs a nickname. UT’s managers tell me his nickname is CP, which is maybe the most lazy nickname on earth, his initials, wow. The human torch is taken, but the fire extinguisher is available. Or maybe the brewer. Because if Patterson keeps up this kind of explosive play, then the Dool-Aid, heretofore poisonous to all who drank it, might just turn into a Big Orange mojito.
The Georgia Dome, bathed in orange hues like it has been so many times since that 2001 SEC championship game loss that sent the Vols off on a long descent into the football wilderness, exploded in cheers. What was this wondrous site, a Volunteer team playing well with the lead in a dome in Georgia?
Vol fans could party like it was 1998, the year of the last title win the building.
So what if it was only August, this felt like redemption.
But, of course, Tyler Bray taketh and Tyler Bray giveth away.
Yes, there was still a Bray fumble at the goal line near the end of the first half — does anyone have so much talent yet play so erratically? — but the Vols withstood a questionable review that upheld a fumble call and instead of going down for the count, rebounded and put together the drive of the game, a whopping 16 play colossus that gave the Vols a 29-14 lead that the Wolfpack would never seriously challenge.
After the game, a more businesslike Dooley — showered, freshly shaven and now wearing an orange tie as if he was en route to apply for a new mortgage –downplayed the win. “I mean, they’re not sad they won,” he said of his players. But it was just one game.
“I think we were fun tonight,” Dooley said.
Just before the press conference ended, Barbara Dooley wife of Vince, mother of Derek and already an icon in the state of Tennessee, slid into a seat directly in front of me. Barbara arrived just in time for her son’s best zinger of the night. A questioner asked Dooley about a touchdown run by Marlin Lane. Only it was Rajon Neal who had scored the touchdown.
“That wasn’t Marlin,” Dooley said, “That was Rajon. But do you still want me to talk about Marlin?”
The room exploded and Dooley maintained his deadpan delivery.
His mother, however, was not so quiet.
Barbara Dooley, wearing an orange blouse and a bright Tennessee orange necklace and bracelet, cackled with glee.
“Oh, he really is fuuuuuunnnny,” she drawled, just like your momma or grandmomma sounds when she’s just heard a joke that she approves of.
Asked about her son’s new relaxed look on the sideline, boat shoes and billowing smock, Barbara sprang to attention. “It’s the first thing I told him after the game! Get a new shirt! You looked too sloppy out there!”
Then she cackled anew, a mom whose son was off the hot seat, if only for a night.
Whether he stays off the hot seat remains to be seen — the season is young — but for tonight the Brewer, the Bray and the coach dressed as if he liked drinking pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, drenched North Carolina State and ended the Georgia Dome curse.
Yes, it was just one win, but it felt like something much more.
Like Dooley’s own happy place might become something more than a one-hit wonder.
Even if his momma doesn’t approve.