Dooley homework involved UT past
Posted: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 1:57 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Derek Dooley did a little Big Orange homework of his own before teaching the Tennessee Volunteers the Xs and Os of his playbook.
He met with former Tennessee coaches and players to talk about the team’s traditions, history and what it will take to get the Vols back to being a national powerhouse. The people he has met say he’s the right person to help rebuild the program but has a tough road ahead of him.
“It’s going to take a person like Derek — a very strong person, a very smart person — and all the help he can get from the Tennessee people,” former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer told The Associated Press.
Dooley took over the program in January after Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern California after only one season coaching the Vols. Unlike Dooley, Kiffin wasn’t one to seek input from Tennessee’s past, instead justifying his way of doing things because it worked at USC when he was an assistant there from 2001 to 2006.
That didn’t jibe with the Vols, whose passion for football is rooted in a rich history. That history includes the “Vol Walk” strut through orange-clad fans on the way to Neyland Stadium on game days, reciting legendary Tennessee coach Robert Neyland’s seven maxims in the locker room before kickoff and, of course, winning.
Dooley got plenty of reminders about that passion during his summer lunches and discussions with the Tennessee faithful.
“It validated what I believed as an outsider that there was something about this place that created a passion for former players unlike a lot of the other teams in this league. And I mean that,” Dooley said. “Players come here and they truly unpack their bags and forge new relationships.”
Few know better about what it takes to succeed at Tennessee than Fulmer, who lost only five games as a Vols offensive guard from 1969-71 and was an assistant coach before leading one of the most successful periods at Tennessee. During a four-year span in the ’90s, Fulmer went 45-5, won two SEC championships and the 1998 national title.
Fulmer was fired in 2008 in part because of fans’ discontent with Fulmer’s second losing season in 16 years as head coach. The Vols finished 7-6 under Kiffin in 2009.
“We are a very tradition-rich university,” Fulmer said. “There was a conscious effort made, in my opinion, to try to change the culture of Tennessee football, and it didn’t work. (Tradition) doesn’t necessarily help you win ball games, but it helps you be able to sell the program.”
Lon Herzbrun, who was a Tennessee linebacker from 1955-57 and worked as an assistant coach from 1969-76, said Dooley recognizes that the biggest, strongest or fastest recruits won’t necessarily turn the program around. Instead, it takes players who will put their whole heart into the program.
“He’s going to try to recruit some people with some better character,” said Herzbrun who joined Dooley for lunch in July. “Sometimes you don’t get the great players, but you can get the ones with character. I was impressed with what he was trying to say and what he was trying to accomplish.”
Still, Dooley’s success must come from more than honoring tradition and recruiting players with character. Only time will tell if he can survive one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
He’s seen success in the SEC as an LSU assistant under Nick Saban for five season, though his success in his limited time as a head coach is more varied. In three years at Louisiana Tech he went 17-20 but led the Bulldogs to their first bowl victory in more than three decades with a win in the 2008 Independence Bowl.
His job of returning Tennessee to national prominence comes with a few extra hurdles. The Vols have a serious lack of depth this year thanks to injuries and the two coaching turnovers in as many seasons. They have the unenviable task this season of facing Oregon, Florida, LSU and Alabama — all teams worthy of a Top 25 ranking — in addition to the rest of their SEC schedule.
The NCAA is reviewing possible violations committed by Tennessee during Kiffin’s tenure, and any related punishment could hamper Dooley’s efforts.
He’s at least got the support of his players, whose trust wasn’t easily won after Kiffin’s fast departure. They rave about his honesty, his organizational skills and his humor.
“We’re excited about being able to come out and play for coach Dooley,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “It was unfortunate, about all the stuff that happened, but we’ve got a coach that we really want to play for and we want to play hard for.”