Knoxville—On January 11 Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker decided that he would stay in school and not enter the NFL Draft.
“I thought it would do me a lot of good to play one more year under coach (Lane) Kiffin,” said the 6-6, 240-pound native of Berea, Ky.
The next day Stocker and the rest of the Tennessee players got a big slap in the face. Kiffin, after just one season, was bolting for USC.
“My mother saw it on TV and she called,” Stocker said. “She was so upset that she was almost crying. I had to calm her down. It was a tough day. A very, very tough day.”
College football players like stability. When they go to a place like Tennessee they certainly expect it. Under the worst of circumstances, they expect no more than one change at head coach in their 3-5 years on campus.
But two changes in two years? From Phillip Fulmer (the definition of stability), to Lane Kiffin (the definition of instability) to Derek Dooley (a stable but unknown quantity at this level) in the space of 24 months?
“Amazing,” said senior defensive end Chris Walker. “None of us could have expected anything like this. But now the seniors on this team have to make the best of it.”
If there is a theme to Dooley’s first few months on the job, it is “Looking Ahead.” There is simply nothing to be gained, said Dooley, to look back at the turmoil the Tennessee program has gone through.
“We have one of the great traditions in college football and our job is to take what we have at Tennessee—which is a lot—and build a program that will be successful for the long haul,” said Dooley, a former attorney (UGA law school) who couldn’t shake the coaching bug. “That is what we’re going to do.”
The styles could not be more different. While Kiffin was like an overexposed politician constantly throwing red meat to this base, Dooley is quiet and measured. Where Kiffin never saw a TV camera or a media interview he didn’t like, Dooley believes you talk to the media when you have something to say or report. The rest of the time you keep your mouth shut and go to work. While the whole world was welcomed at Kiffin’s practices, Dooley wants to restrict access on all levels. Earlier this year he inadvertently had some former players removed from spring practice because, quite frankly, they were part of a huge crowd that just showed up. It caused a little media dust up but now all former players are welcomed and are asked just to let the football office know they are coming.
The contrast is simple. Kiffin’s role model is Pete Carroll. Dooley’s is his father (Vince) and Nick Saban. Both styles work.
The former Louisiana Tech head coach and athletics director knows what a good football team is supposed to look like. He came of age in the 1980s watching his father field some of the best teams in Georgia history. He played at Virginia when George Welsh, one of the best fundamental coaches in the history of the game, lifted the Cavaliers to the No. 1 ranking in the land. He worked for Saban at LSU and was recruiting coordinator when the Tigers accumulated the talent that would go on to win national championships in 2003 and 2007. Saban and Dooley weren’t around for the 2007 national championship. But their players were.
“Coach Dooley knows his stuff and so does this staff,” Stocker said. “He’s got a plan.”
Dooley’s plan, however, could include some short-term pain in order to achieve some long-term gain. The instability of the past 24 months has led to some pretty serious gaps in personnel. It was already a given that two freshmen were going to have to play on the offensive line. That was before Thursday when Aaron Douglas, a freshman All-America tackle last season, asked for and was granted his release. If we are to believe the recruiting services, running back Bryce Brown was the top prospect in the nation in 2009. He has indicated that he wants to transfer but the book has not been closed on that yet. Brown may yet return to the team.
It remains to be seen if any of the quarterbacks can play consistently at the SEC level. Nick Stephens played a good bit in 2008 but Kiffin and his staff barely used him in 2009.
And gone are three future NFL players: Safety Eric Berry, defensive tackle Dan Williams, and running back Montario Hardesty.
Put it all together with a schedule that includes Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama in a six-week stretch and it’s hard not to conclude that 2010 will be a tough year for Tennessee. The only question is whether or not the Tennessee fans and the powers that be will be patient while Dooley and his staff rebuild a program in dire need of stability.
“We’ve heard a lot of people say that we’re going to struggle this year,” Walker said. “I just think we can prove those people wrong. This team has been through a lot. There is a lot of pride here.”
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