KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Derek Dooley knows what a rebuilding job looks like when he sees one.
He also knows that the magnitude of the one he faces at Tennessee is one of the reasons he’s here in the first place.
Dooley might be the son of an SEC coaching legend, and a lawyer to boot, but he wasn’t the Vols’ top target when Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern California back in January.
For that matter, he wasn’t even their second target.
A handful of coaches, namely Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, took a long look at the job and said thanks, but no thanks.
And that’s just fine with Dooley, who’s not particularly interested in the fine print of how this opportunity came about or how daunting it might be.
As he says glowingly, it’s Tennessee.
“I wasn’t concerned to where people said, ‘You’re thin here, or you don’t have that,’” said Dooley, whose father, Vince, brought Georgia’s proud program back to life with a national championship and six SEC titles during a Hall of Fame career in Athens that spanned 25 seasons.
“The way I looked at it was, ‘Hey, it’s a great opportunity to be a head coach in the SEC at a place a lot of people would kill to be.’ Tennessee has it all. There can’t be more than five to 10 schools out there who can say they have what Tennessee has or can duplicate what Tennessee has.”
Similarly, the 41-year-old Dooley shrugs at where he might have been in the Vols’ pecking order.
“There were more than a few that looked at the Louisiana Tech job and said, ‘No thanks,’” said Dooley, whose Vols wrapped up spring practice last Saturday. “Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, I’m really not measuring myself on whether I can win more games than my dad or anything like that. I want to go into a program, make an impact on a program, win and really have an effect on these young men.
“If that’s what you’re in it for, you don’t really care what the problems are. There’s never been a program that had more problems than Louisiana Tech when I got there, and we did some nice things and built a structure in place to where I think they’re going to get to where they can compete on a consistent basis.”
For the Vols, it may be a while.
While careful not to disparage his talent level, something his predecessor did incessantly, Dooley said patience will be a must for a lot of people over the next couple of years.
In a lot of ways, Tennessee’s roster looks like one you’d expect to see at a school coming off NCAA probation and major scholarship losses.
The Vols have had an inordinate amount of attrition during all the coaching turmoil, and it started toward the end of Phillip Fulmer’s tenure.
His next-to-last signing class in 2007 was ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN’s Scouts Inc., a class that consisted of 32 players, counting early enrollees and junior college players.
But heading into what should be the fourth season, more than half of those players are no longer in the program. Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan turned pro, and three others exhausted their eligibility. Still, of the 27 players who would have had eligibility remaining, 15 are no longer around.
And if you combine the 2007 and 2008 classes, 20 players have either quit, been kicked off the team or transferred. Kiffin sent players packing at a dizzying rate soon after getting the job.
Even when the Vols get all of their freshmen on campus this summer, they will still only be somewhere in the low 70s in terms scholarship players. The NCAA allows 85.
“I think this is unlike any situation I’ve heard of, because you have a program that had such great stability and success for so long; incredible stability,” Dooley said. “Everybody was used to the same-old, same-old, and it was a healthy thing. And then you go through 18 months of absolute disarray and chaos, and you walk into a situation where there are a lot of parts everywhere. It was a challenging first couple of months, for sure."
He offers an innocent laugh, one that reflects his Southern drawl, when asked directly about the Vols’ talent level.
The spring was proof that there’s definitely some young talent in the program. But what the Vols are is woefully thin in key areas, in particular the offensive line and at defensive tackle.
“The surprise is the lack of experience we’re heading into the season with,” Dooley said. “I really don’t want to start attacking our talent level. I think every coach that takes a program, at least most of them, it’s probably not what they thought. When you put together some of the things that have happened here over the last couple of years, it’s only natural that from top to bottom you don’t have the kind of players that a real good, healthy, stable Tennessee would have.
"Having said that, I am excited about some of our younger players, and we have a good senior class coming back. The real trick now is taking a young and inexperienced squad and trying to get them to compete quickly.
"We're going to do this thing the right way."