I’ll admit it: In the waning moments of Tennessee’s loss to Mississippi State Saturday night, I should’ve been paying closer attention. It was a three point game in the final moments of a key SEC game, one which could eventually propel Mississippi State to their first 10 win season since 1999, and one which could also propel Derek Dooley to Monster.com in search of his next job. Yet I was barely paying attention. Shame on me.
The problem was I didn’t really need to pay attention. I already knew how the game was going to end.
When Mississippi State got the ball back with about five and a half minutes to go, I already knew the Bulldogs would find a way to put a final touchdown on the board, and turn a 34-31 nail biter into a double-digit final score. If they didn’t, I knew the Vols would find a way to shoot themselves in the foot, and blow their final opportunity. As I say on Twitter every Saturday, “It’s always something with Tennessee” (feel free to use the hashtag #ItsAlwaysSomethingWithTennessee next Saturday), and Saturday’s loss was no exception. Mississippi State got the ball back, chewed up the clock and scored in the final seconds to seal the victory.
It’s always something with Tennessee.
And really, that’s the scary sentiment about Tennessee football right now. At this point you not only expect something to go wrong in the final minutes, you’re certain of it. It doesn’t matter the opponent, venue, time or score, in a big game, against a quality team, something will go wrong. It’s the safest bet in sports right now. Sun rise, sun set.
It’s also why as we now pass the midway point of the third year of the Derek Dooley era at Tennessee, I’ve come to one simple conclusion: It might be time for Tennessee to begin their search for a new football coach.
Now please understand that those are words I never thought I’d say. I’m not a Dooley hater or basher, and certainly not someone who rushes to judgment on anything, especially the job security of a football coach. As a matter of fact, up until Saturday I was one of Dooley’s biggest fans, and quite possibly his No. 1 apologist. In a lot of ways I still am.
That’s because to this day I still don’t think 99 percent of college football fans understand exactly how lousy the situation Dooley walked into was in 2009. It was the absolute perfect storm of crap hitting the fan, a combination of lack of talent, depletion of the roster, trouble-making stars, misevaluated recruits and minimal depth in the upper classes. It was only compounded last year with injuries to Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, quite possibly the two most indispensable players on the entire roster. Simply put it didn’t matter whether Tennessee’s coach was Vince Lombardi, Vince Dooley or Derek Dooley these last few years, the Vols just weren’t anywhere near ready to compete with the Alabama’s and Georgia’s of the world.
The thing is, we’ve now reached a weird tipping point with this program. In defense of Tennessee fans, it doesn’t seem like any of them actually expected to compete with the Alabama’s or Georgia’s, and most would probably excuse the Florida loss a few weeks ago based on how the Gators have played this season. In an era where college football fan-bases are comically impatient with their head coaches, Tennessee fans have actually been pretty rational throughout this whole process.
The problem is that at this point, it’s not just about Dooley losing to Alabama or Florida, but them losing to just about everyone of substance in the sport. Through 31 games Dooley is now sporting a 14-17 overall record, with Saturday’s loss at Mississippi State dropping him to 0-13 against ranked teams. And reflecting back, I mean seriously, what would you call the signature win of the Dooley era in Knoxville so far? Is it that NC State game earlier in the year? Sure NC State beat Florida State a few weeks ago, but when your “signature” win is against a team which barely beat UConn, I’m not sure that’s anything to hang your hat on.
Maybe even more concerning than that record against ranked opponents is this: Tennessee is just 1-10 in SEC play since the start of the 2011 season.
Read that again. The mighty Tennessee Volunteers, home of Peyton Manning and Arian Foster, Albert Haynesworth and Eric Berry have just one win over their last 11 in SEC. Not just one win against ranked SEC teams, not just one win against the South Carolina’s and LSU’s, but just one win against everybody in the conference. For comparison’s sake, Vanderbilt- the only team UT has beaten in that stretch, and a school which has never been to back-to-back bowl games- has three wins over that timeframe (although, in one more overall league game), and incredibly, Texas A&M has two to their credit as well. And umm, in case you hadn’t heard, Texas A&M didn’t even join the SEC until this year!
Now again, we do need to give Dooley the benefit of the doubt a bit here, if only because he really was bringing a knife to a gun-fight in some of those losses. You can’t blame Dooley for all the injuries last year, attrition the year before, or the fact that Alabama and LSU have often masqueraded as NFL teams in college football uniforms. Those aren’t Derek Dooley problems. Those are problems that would’ve plagued anyone.
At the same time, you can’t use those excuses for every game and every loss. Not when Tyler Bray was healthy last year against Kentucky, had more than enough around him to pull out a victory and he simply didn’t. It’s also hard to excuse Saturday’s performance in Starkville, if only because, well, there are no feasible excuses. On Saturday the Vols didn’t have any injuries holding them back. They weren’t a young team trying to figure things out on the road, and there wasn’t a major talent disparity between them and the competition across the field for them. Heck, you can’t even use fatigue as an excuse; Tennessee was coming off a bye week. Nope, from the first snap to the last on Saturday, Mississippi State was simply the better prepared and better coached team.
It’s a trend that’s all too familiar to Tennessee fans and one which was kind of a microcosm of Dooley’s time at Tennessee.
Understand my 180-degree turn on Dooley has absolutely nothing to do with this one loss in particular; ultimately, its way bigger than one game, one loss, or even one season. What it is about however is all the little nuances, the ones you might not pick up on if you only watch Tennessee once in a while, but ones which have seemed to continually plague the Vols throughout the Dooley era. With Tennessee under Dooley it never is about the ‘big’ things, but instead a thousand little ones which add up over the course of 60 minutes. You can get away with one or two here and there. You can’t get away with them when they happen quarter by quarter, week by week, and season by season.
And something does happen every week. It happened against Florida when Frankie Hammond took a five-yard screen pass and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown score that broke open a close game. It happened against Georgia when Derrick Broadus missed an extra point for no apparent reason. It happened against Mississippi State when the Vols couldn’t make that third down tackle which would’ve given them the ball back with a chance to win Saturday night. And if it’s not those things, it’s something else, a muffed punt, a sloppy fumble, an interception at the worst possible time. Again, it’s always something with Tennessee, yet at this point that something has nothing to do with talent, depth or experience. It’s about a lack of focus. A lack of execution. A lack of attention to detail.
Ding, ding, ding! To me, that’s the buzz word above all other buzzwords: Details. They’re the one thing that separates the average and even good coaches from the great ones, which in turn separate the perennial championship contenders from the ones who win eight or nine or 10 games, but can’t quite get over the edge. And it’s the lack of details which continually plague Dooley’s football team.
Now please understand I know of which I speak. That’s because while I never had the chance to watch an elite college football head coach up close and personal, I was blessed enough- and I do use the word “blessed”- to watch Jim Calhoun, one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball day-in and day-out throughout my childhood. Say what you want about the guy as a person (and at this point I’ve heard it all), but by any tangible measurement, the man is one of the five greatest coaches in the history of college basketball.
And after watching Calhoun for all these years, and talking to guys who’ve played for him as well as assistant coaches who’ve worked with him, the one thing undeniable thing about Calhoun is that he had almost a maniacal obsession to detail. When he was coaching, Jim Calhoun could tolerate a simple lack of talent and he could tolerate any physical limitations a guy might have. But what he had absolutely zero patience for were mental mistakes, for those nights where his team themselves more so than the opponent them.
To translate it to football, isn’t that the exact same way you’d describe Nick Saban? Or Urban Meyer? Heck, aren’t mental mistakes the only time you’ll ever see Les Miles raise his voice at one of his players? An attention to detail is something some coaches have and others don’t. And for whatever reason, Dooley just doesn’t seem to have it.
It’s also why I’m not totally sure positive that bringing Dooley back for a fourth year in 2013 would serve any sort of purpose. Sure Dooley might win more games, but it’d just be the byproduct of having more talent than other teams, not from preparation, execution or mental sharpness.
As a matter of fact, those above mental traits only seem to be getting worse as the years wear on, at a time where Dooley is running out of excuses. I mean honestly, at this point who does Dooley have to blame but himself? These are his recruits, playing for his coaching staff. Most everyone who is on the field has plenty of playing experience at this point. Few have played for any head coach other than him. So if they can’t do the little things right at this point, what makes anyone think that’ll change next season? Or in three? Or five?
It won’t, and because of it, it may be time for Derek Dooley to go.
It’s always something with Tennessee.
And at this point the “something” the Vols might need is a new head football coach.
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@Aaron_Torres as a UK grad I'm contractually obligated to hate UT & even I feel bad for Dooley. Really like him but it just ain't happenin'
@abpriddy things, attention to detail. Think Bill Snyder. With Tennessee it's NEVER talent and ALWAYS the little things. Bringing Dooley
@abpriddy Basically after watching a Jim Calhoun coached team my whole life, here's what I realize: With the great coaches, it's the little