KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Dooley is the son of a Hall of Fame coach (Vince Dooley of Georgia) who played for another Hall of Fame coach (George Welsh of Virginia) and tutored under yet another coach who will someday be in the Hall of Fame (Nick Saban).
But nothing in Dooley's lifelong training prepared him for what happened on Oct. 2, 2010 in Baton Rouge, La. For a few fleeting seconds on that day it appeared that Dooley's first Tennessee team had pulled a stunning upset of No. 12 LSU. With Tennessee leading 14-10, LSU mismanaged its final possession (sound familiar?).
|Tyler Bray could make Derek Dooley's second year in Knoxville go much smoother than the first. (US Presswire)|
The clock at Tiger Stadium registered all zeroes but the game was not over. A review from the booth confirmed that Tennessee had 13 defensive players on the field for the previous play. LSU was given one untimed snap and Stevan Ridley powered into the end zone to give LSU a stunning 16-14 victory. Dooley threw his headsets to the ground in frustration.
"Talking to the team and talking to the media after that was the toughest hour I have had as a coach," said Dooley. "It took a while for us to get over that."
"We've been through some tough times around here but nothing prepares you for that," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said.
Now fast forward to the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville. Tennessee led 20-17 but North Carolina was driving to either win the game or tie the score and get to overtime. Again, the clock ran out with Tennessee in the lead after North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates spiked the ball.
The head of the Big Ten officiating crew actually announced that the game was over. Dooley shook Butch Davis' hand. But the game wasn't over. After assessing a five-yard illegal substitution penalty (which should have been a 15-yard illegal participation penalty) on North Carolina, one second was put back on the clock. Casey Barth kicked 39-yard field goal to send the game into overtime and North Carolina eventually won 30-27 in two extra periods.
Those two games -- and their equally bizarre finishes -- were the difference in 8-5 and 6-7 in Dooley's first season in Knoxville. The running joke around college football was that Dooley was 6-2 in games that he won in 2010.
"I told people I was 8-7 in postgame handshakes," said Dooley. "We played 13 games but I had 15 postgame handshakes."
Dooley was not totally surprised that the 2010 season had some strange twists and turns. He had arrived in Knoxville the previous January to find a team that was pretty shell-shocked as the players contemplated their third head coach in as many years. Phillip Fulmer, a model of stability, had been forced out after 18 seasons and was replaced by Lane Kiffin, better known in these parts as the Boy Wonder. Kiffin's scorched earth approach to the job left a ton of wild fires that Dooley would eventually have to put out.
"Mentally, these kids were pretty beat up," said Dooley. "They were very much in survival mode against the rest of the world. They were into looking out for each other. That attitude is good if you're in jail or at the YMCA where nobody is keeping score. But it is not conducive to winning games in this league."
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The Volunteers started 2-6 against a schedule that included the regular SEC big dogs plus a non-conference beat down from Oregon in Knoxville. But November arrived, the schedule got easier, and Tennessee committed to throwing the ball with their future quarterback in freshman Tyler Bray, who started the last four games of the regular season. The Vols went undefeated in November to earn a bowl trip.
Now Dooley is in his second spring at Tennessee and there is still a lot of work to do. The offense is going to be pretty good. Three true freshmen started on the offensive line last season and that group will be better. Sophomore receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers could play for anybody. At 6-4, 182, Hunter is big-time deep threat. Running back Tauren Poole is a good, not great, running back who had more than 1,000 yards last season. And Bray has the physical talent and mental makeup to be a star in this league.
Bray finished the season with 1,849 yards passing and 18 TD, but everyone here understands that Bray did not put up those numbers against the tougher defenses on Tennessee's schedule. That will come soon enough as the Vols will play Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina in a seven-game stretch this fall.
"The young guys have shown they can make plays," said Bray, the California native. "But now we have to prove we can do it every game."
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who came to Knoxville from Boise State, was reportedly in the mix at Texas when defensive coordinator Will Muschamp left Austin to become head coach at Florida. Wilcox must like challenges because he stayed in Knoxville, where he will have a huge one in 2011.
Tennessee's biggest tackle is Jackson, who told me he is 275. They will miss the leadership of linebacker Nick Reveiz. Safety Janzen Jackson left the program for personal reasons and Tennessee won't know until this summer if he'll return.
Said Dooley about the defense: "Our size and strength and speed is well below what we need across the board."
Said Wilcox: "Yes, there is a sense of urgency, but that's fun. That's why you come to places like Tennessee."
So now you know why Dooley did not count 2010 as his first year at Tennessee.
"Given where we had to come from it was year zero," Dooley said. "This is year one. This year everybody understands the expectations. There is a standard and everybody is starting to inch forward together. We have journeyed through the hard part -- I hope."