HOOVER, Ala. – The first question was about his mother. The second question was about his father. The third question was about the bar fight.
At some point, Derek Dooley might become just a football coach but for now he’s a novelty.
His mother, Barbara, has all but started the first Athens-based Tennessee fan club (“She made no bones about it in Atlanta at a ‘Big Orange’ caravan event, walking in with an orange boa.”).
His father, Vince, the Georgia icon, views orange as the color of the walls in Hades.
The bar fight? It defines the mess Dooley has stepped into. He left a law practice to coach football, not the typical career transition. He left Louisiana Tech, where he went 4-8 last season, to take the head coaching job at Tennessee. Whether that’s a step up right now is a matter of debate. A once-proud program slid under Phil Fulmer, morphed into a cartoon under Lane Kiffin, and then became a target of scorn and a source of embarrassment two weeks ago with a late night bar fight that left an off-duty police officer on the ground after allegedly being kicked by Volunteer players.
When news of “Vol Brawl” broke July 9, Dooley was vacationing with family and friends at Lake Burton. He had seen his parents during the July 4 weekend, but Vince and Barbara then returned to Athens. When Derek began the drive home, he phoned his father.
“He called me when he was driving back to Knoxville,” Vince Dooley said by phone Friday. “I got angry, and I think he thought I was mad at him. I wasn’t, but he preferred talking to his mother. He thought I was chewing him out.”
It’s easy to project Derek Dooley as a great football coach one day. He is football smart, street smart, book smart. He has been a player, a coach and an administrator. He has a law degree, leading him to crack at SEC media days: “I’m able to read the NCAA manual and understand it the first time.”
A byproduct of the law background means he’s also equipped to interrogate players, which has become an unfortunate part of his profession.
But his coaching potential notwithstanding, even his father projects “it will take three or four years” to turn around the Volunteers. This being the SEC, there’s no guarantee he’ll be extended a long lifeline.
Tennessee doesn’t just have a football problem, it has an image problem. Imagine taking the top MBA from a Wharton graduating class, putting him in charge of Enron and saying: “Fix it.”
“I wish I could snap my fingers, but it just doesn’t work that way,” Dooley said. “It takes time.”
Referring to Tennessee’s image, he said, “It’s not where we want it to be now. Whether you have two incidents, four, five — you don’t want any in your program.”
It’s believed up to a dozen Tennessee players were at a Knoxville bar on the night in question. Details remain fuzzy because while the university police have issued their report, Knoxville police are still investigating. Darren Myles Jr., a safety from Atlanta, has been kicked off the team. Two other players were suspended indefinitely. The fate of freshman Da’Rick Rogers from Calhoun remains uncertain because Dooley isn’t certain of his role, even though he’s facing disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges.
Sound like the big career break every coach wants?
When Dooley returned to Knoxville, he questioned every player involved and tried to sort out the details. He also reamed out the team. Everybody on the team.
“He told us what we’ve done, how we’ve embarrassed not just the university but our whole state, and I agree with him,” linebacker Nick Reveiz said.
Here’s the kicker: Reveiz wasn’t even there that night.
Dooley is trying to find the balance between good cop and bad cop.
“I’ve made plenty of bad decisions,” he said. “We’re human. There are bad things out there. It’s been that way since the Bible.”
He added, with remarkable candor: “We put so much emphasis on football and so much emphasis on academic support, which we should. But there’s a little area out there that sometimes we neglect. We talk about it, but what are we doing structurally to really emphasize what we’re saying? That’s your personal growth as a man.”
He has moved from trying to put out one fire to the next, presumably with little sleep in between. Recruiting, staffing, planning, coaching, counseling, selling. He impressed a roomful of cynical media members Friday, expressing his vision and sharing anecdotes about his parents.
Asked later off stage if this has been overwhelming, he said: “It is if you allow it to be. But if you go in knowing there’s going to be crisis, there’s going to be exposure and you’re going to get scrutinized, you can manage it pretty well.”
The games may seem like a welcome relief.
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