|The Vols have an easier schedule this season, but Dooley's margin of error is razor thin. (US Presswire)|
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Dooley is the son of a coach, therefore he has no illusions about the task that lay before him.
"I lived this life before I ever thought about being a coach," said Dooley, whose father, Vince, won six SEC championships at Georgia and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. "I know the deal."
Tennessee's third-year head coach knows from first-hand experience that fans in the SEC are long on passion and short on patience. Vince Dooley is the most revered coach in Georgia history with 201 wins in 25 seasons. But in 1974, when Derek Dooley was six years old, Bulldogs fans wanted his father out after a 6-6 season. But Georgia did not make a change and Vince Dooley won four more SEC championships, a national championship (1980), and had an unprecedented run of run (33-3, three SEC titles) over three years with Herschel Walker (1980-82). Vince Dooley retired after the 1988 season.
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"The world has changed a lot from the time my dad coached," said Dooley, who was an attorney with a prestigious Atlanta law firm before he decided to go into coaching in 1996. "But you know what? This is the life we've chosen. We are paid to build a program, win games and graduate young men."
Dooley doesn't shy away from the fact that this is a big year for him at Tennessee. His first year (6-7) could be explained because he inherited an unholy mess after the one-year firestorm that was Lane Kiffin, who replaced Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer in 2009. At one point during Dooley's first season in 2010 Tennessee started seven true freshmen in a game.
The 2011 season was a combination of injuries (wide receiver Justin Hunter blew out his knee in the third game with Florida) and a schedule that included No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU (in consecutive weeks), No. 6 Arkansas, No. 9 South Carolina and Georgia, the SEC East champs. The season ended on an awful note when Tennessee basically mailed it in against Kentucky and lost 10-7. The loss snapped Tennessee's 26-game winning streak against the Wildcats. It also knocked the Volunteers (5-7) out of a bowl game.
Then assistant coaches, seven of them to be exact, started bailing out.
"Were some of them concerned about their futures if they stayed here? Of course they were," said Dooley.
But since national signing day things have begun to settle down at Tennessee and there are reasons for optimism in Big Orange Country:
• With veteran quarterback Tyler Bray and two of the best receivers in the country (Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers), Tennessee will have one of the better offenses in the SEC.
• Later this year Tennessee football will move into a $45 million state of the art football practice facility. The 145,000 square foot building includes, among other things, lockers with built in iPhone chargers and a mixed martial arts cage.
"There will not be a better facility in the country," said Dooley.
• Dave Hart came on as athletics director last September after a successful run as AD at Florida State followed by several years as the No. 2 man running the day–to-day operations at Alabama. Since he arrived Hart has been working to take a lot of the non-football tasks (dealing with faculty, administration) off Dooley's desk.
"Because of Dave's background he knows what it takes to be successful at this level," said Dooley.
Hart also knows that the No. 1 job for an AD in the SEC is to make sure that the football program is healthy. Under Dooley, it is 11-12 the past two seasons. It has to be moving in the right direction at the end of 2012 in order for Hart to give Dooley a fourth season in Knoxville.
Dooley has a chance for a good start. The Volunteers open with North Carolina State in Atlanta on Friday, Aug. 31. Then there are three straight home games with Georgia State, still rebuilding Florida, and Akron. Start 4-0 and then fans will be in a better frame of mind for four straight SEC games with Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina, three of which are on the road.
After the way Tennessee finished the 2011 season, there is no way to overstate the importance of the N.C. State game at the Georgia Dome.
"It would help us to get off to a good start, no doubt about it," said Dooley.
Spoken like a man who knows the deal.