For a Tennessee fan, the most deflating thing about the recent exodus of Derek Dooley's assistants -- up to seven out of nine since the end of the 2011 season, following secondary coach Terry Joseph's departure March 2 -- is that many of them aren't even fleeing Knoxville for better jobs ... they just seem to be fleeing, period.
Take Eric Russell, who coached tight ends and special teams for Dooley last season before leaving to join Mike Leach's staff at Washington State as an assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. In other words, Russell has left one of the SEC's biggest and best-paying programs to take an almost identical job with a current Pac-12 also-ran in Pullman, Washington, which is Pullman*. And yes, Russell is a native of (relatively) nearby St. Maries, Idaho, but he told the Spokane Spokesman-Review Wednesday that had little-to-nothing to do with decision.
What did? The uncertainty over Dooley's future:
“I think at Tennessee, it was going to come down to how many games you won the next year, and unfortunately nobody's got a crystal ball,” said Russell. “I tried to take the sentimental stuff out of it. A chance to be an assistant head coach and concentrate purely on special teams was a little bit of a unique situation.”
As endorsements for the future of Dooley's Volunteer tenure go, "unfortunately, nobody's got a crystal ball" isn't exactly going to qualify as "ringing." Russell isn't coming right out and saying he expects Dooley to be fired at the end of this season ... but he's also clearly not willing to wager his livelihood on him not being fired, either.
Dooley still has plenty going for him--one of the nation's highest totals of returning starters, a bright new defensive coordinator in Sal Sunseri, a brand-spanking-new athletics facility that should pay big dividends on the recruiting trail. It's also not like Russell's decision is going to do any kind of irreparable damage; if there's any noticeable on-field decline directly attributable to going from Russell to new tight ends/special teams coach Charlie Coiner, we'll be surprised.
All the same, for a coach who saw the Vols' 2011 meltdown first-hand to point-blank say he's not confident Dooley can turn things around -- who seems vaguely more confident, frankly, that he won't -- speaks volumes about where the Volunteer program stands heading into a make-or-break 2012. And it's not the sort of volumes Vol fans are going to want to hear.
*"'WSU is a hard school to go to, man,' Williams says. 'You ain't got nothin' to do but get drunk and smoke weed, and not go to class because you're too tired from doing what you're doing.'"
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