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The beleaguered Tennessee head man is losing fan support. Can he last another year in Knoxville?
Derek Dooley is losing the fans. He's losing some friendly bloggers. He's lost a paint-proficient segment of the student body:
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Is there any kind of case to be made for keeping him around another year?
Probably the best one is derived from an argument Dooley himself has made from time to time. He says that the program was in such disarray when he got there that 2010 was his "year zero" and 2011 was his real year one. That would make this season his real year two, and coaches almost never get the hook during or after their second year. If they do, it's because of some kind of strange personal scandal or an ill advised feud with management. Even the unmitigated disaster that was the Mike Locksley era at New Mexico got into its third year before he got a pink slip, and he even punched an assistant coach.
Furthermore, the 2011 season was one that a plague of injuries submarined. Linebacker Herman Lathers missed the whole year. Justin Hunter tore his ACL after two games and one catch. Tyler Bray missed five games, four of them losses. Safety Brent Brewer went down for good midway through, hurting a position already thin thanks to Janzen Jackson getting himself dismissed. Dooley once had to call an emergency kicker out of a frat house shortly before a game. The 2010 season would have been a nine-win affair if not for two bizarre end-of-game fiascos of the sort that typically don't happen once to anyone in an entire season, much less twice to a single team. The latter of the two even changed the NCAA's rule book.
Jackson, and the similarly dismissed Da'Rick Rogers, are two players UT could really use this season, but you can't really blame Dooley for their personal failings. He has recruited well enough, with his three classes finishing 9th, 13th, and 17th nationally according to Rivals. Those were the 5th, 6th, and 6th best classes in the conference, though keep in mind that Auburn was ahead of UT in each of those years. That's not up in the insane range that Alabama inhabits, but only Alabama inhabits it.
Those rankings also don't express the hole the program got in due to the attrition of changing head coaches in consecutive years. That 2009 class, which Lane Kiffin helped build and who Dooley closed on, had less than half of its players left by the end of last season thanks to transfers and dismissals. It takes time to rebuild a program in the face of bad attrition. The permanent cross-division rivalry with Alabama basically guarantees Dooley a loss a year as well, because just about no one can take a rebuilding team and beat a Saban team that is fully operational in the way that his Tide has been across 2010-12.
And if all of that isn't enough, the entire defensive coaching staff turned over this past year. The new staff is installing a different scheme. Given the pedigree of the guy heading it up, former Saban assistant Sal Sunseri, it's probably fair to give them more than one season to get things installed and working.
The restlessness from the fans is not the only thing working against Dooley, however. The athletic director that hired him is gone, and new ADs like to have their own guys. The two most important players on this year's team, Bray and Cordarrelle Patterson, are pretty good bets to turn pro after the season. It will be tough to replace both if they go. And, without looking that far down the road, it could get worse this year.
Fans are getting noisy now, but two more losses are likely coming with Alabama and South Carolina being the team's next two games. Tennessee will have to sweep Missouri-at Vanderbilt-Kentucky just to get to 3-5 in the league this season. That's doable and would be an improvement on last year, but it will put Dooley's overall SEC record to 7-17. Winning just 30% of conference games over the course of three seasons is not the sort of thing that Volunteers abide.
I'm not ready to bury the Dooley era just yet. Cutting him loose could easily set off another round of attrition that could hamstring whoever comes in next. A lack of continuity is a major part of why the program is in a tough spot, and turning over not just the head coach but most (if not all) of the assistants again will seriously set back any thread of player development.
The big question Dave Hart will have to answer is whether he's willing to let Dooley continue to stabilize the program, or is he willing to risk further disarray and bring in someone else to do it. The decision he makes there may end up deciding the fate of his own tenure somewhere down the road. Plus, as we've seen with the last two hires, finding a coach for Tennessee who will last and please the fans isn't a no brainer of a feat.