Vince Dooley remembers the day that his youngest son, Derek, made it clear that he wanted to be a football coach.
Derek had received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia where he played for George Welsh. He then attended law school at the University of Georgia.
His mother, Barbara, had seen her husband dedicate their entire married life to the coaching profession. That was enough heartache for one family. Her son–the baby of four children–was going to someday be a partner at King & Spalding, one of the biggest law firms in the country.
There was just one problem. Derek Dooley did not enjoy being a lawyer. He loved football. He had seen his father’s level headed, methodical approach to the profession and decided that was who and what he wanted to be. So, just like his father, Derek Dooley put together a game plan to convince his parents that leaving the legal profession–and the financial rewards that came with it–to make NO money in coaching was the right thing for him to do.
“He put together a compeling argument and had all of his bases covered like a good lawyer would,” Vince Dooley told me. “Finally, I stopped him and told him that he had convinced me. The real challenge was going to be talking to his mother.”
Barbara Dooley knew it was coming and knew what her response would be. Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Coaches have gotta coach. As Lou Holtz often says “Only coach if you can’t live without it. It’s just too hard.”
Derek Dooley couldn’t live without coaching and today he is the head coach at the University of Tennessee.
“Obviously, I am very proud of him as a father,” Vince Dooley told me Friday night. “As a coach, I know how hard these jobs are and I know what the challenges will be. There is part of me that wishes I could take some of the hits for him. But Derek is his own man. He proved that long ago.”
Some Tennessee fans may not be excited about this hire. They wanted a sexy name like a Will Muschamp or a Jon Gruden. First of all, neither of those guys were coming. Secondly, you have to understand that with this hire AD Mike Hamilton had to go with stability and competence over flash. Tennessee didn’t need somebody to win the press conference. They need somebody to run the football program. They didn’t need somebody to tweak Urban Meyer and get the chat rooms humming.
It was that desire for sexyness–of style over substance–that got Tennessee into trouble in the first place.
Here is what I mean by that. There seems to be this notion that in order to recruit the modern day high school football player you have to offer him some kind of show-business, NFL draft camp, MTV new-age mentality approach to the game.
The reality is that what has worked in college football for over 100 years still works today: You recruit good players with the opportunity to improve themselves educationally as people and professionally as athletes. You hire good coaches and you set high standards. You demand that everyone in the organization meet those standards. You understand that you work for the institution and not the other way around. You never do anything to embarrass the institution and you honor its history and traditions. You put together the plan for success and implement the plan. Those who do not wish to follow the plan are free to leave or will be asked to leave.
And that’s it. As the head coach, you do those things well and the rest will follow.
Is Derek Dooley going to have some rough spots ahead of him? Sure, because when everything shakes out, there may be more damage done to the program by Lane Kiffin than currently meets the eye. There were obviously some misgivings by others, who turned down the opportunity, that there are some real problems in this program.
But in the final analysis, the younger Dooley is not only the right kind of coach, he is the right kind of MAN that Tennessee needs to lead its football program at this point in history. Tennessee got away from the things that made it great–the fundamental principles of General Neyland–with the hire of Lane Kiffin. It went reaching for something that was totally out of character for the institution hoping to keep pace with the University of Florida and to get back to the top of the SEC.
Tennessee is Robert Neyland, Bowden Wyatt, Doug Dickey, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors, Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning. It stands for something fundamental and unchanging. It does not alter its mission and values hoping that talented players will come. It offers talented high school students an opportunity to be part of something special–something bigger than themselves.
Tennessee forgot that for 14 months. With the hiring of Derek Dooley, UT now has a chance to get it back.