Like most coaches, at least most smart coaches, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley refuses to be pinned down on what realistic expectations are for his Vols next season.
Dooley enters Year No. 3 on Rocky Top and is still looking for his first winning season after inheriting a reclamation project the size of Neyland Stadium.
The schedule is much more manageable in 2012. The Vols return an SEC-high 20 starters, and what was a painfully young team two years ago is now all of a sudden not so young.
In short, it’s time for Tennessee to make a move in the Eastern Division, and it’s probably in Dooley’s best interest that the Vols make that move.
Of course, that’s all he heard on the recruiting trail over the past several months, rival coaches telling prospects that he was on the hottest of hot seats and the program was in disarray with six different assistant coaches leaving.
Still, Dooley was able to reel in a top-20 class nationally for the third year in a row and was able to replace some of his departed assistants with coaches from winning programs, in particular defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri from Alabama and running backs coach Jay Graham from South Carolina.
Dooley understands as well as anybody that the program has to make significant progress next season.
What does that mean in terms of wins and losses?
He’ll leave that up to everybody else to decide.
“We need to show significant improvement in how we compete every game,” said Dooley, who’s 4-12 against SEC competition at Tennessee. “I say that, not necessarily talking about results. Certainly there’s a level of results we need to achieve. But more importantly, we need to go out there and compete our tails off for four quarters and put ourselves in a position to win every football game.
“We didn’t do that last year. That’s the starting point, the intangibles we play with, the execution, the discipline, the toughness and the ability to be able to sustain it over four quarters.
“We have enough players now that we need to demand that.”
The last time the Big Orange assembled as a football team, what ensued was one of the darkest hours in the last 30 years of the program.
Tennessee had its 26-game winning streak over Kentucky snapped with the Wildcats playing a receiver at quarterback, and the Vols were saddled with their third losing season in the past four years.
Losing to Kentucky was one thing. Sooner or later, the Wildcats were going to win.
But it’s the way Tennessee lost that stung Dooley and continues to resonate with many of the Vols’ fans.
“Losing to Kentucky when you have a streak like that is always gong to cause an uproar,” Dooley said. “My disappointment was more about how we lost it. We looked bad. That’s a fact. We looked disinterested.
“And to go and look disinterested when you’re one win away from being bowl eligible is inexcusable, but that’s my responsibility. When a team looks like that, it’s 100 percent on the head coach. I believe that.”
Following that bitter defeat, several of the older, departing players voiced their disappointment with some of the things that had been allowed to happen in the program.
There was a clear disconnect, and while Dooley’s not necessarily ready to say that he lost his team, he concedes that it wasn’t a healthy situation at season’s end.
“It’s fair to say that we didn’t have a good team dynamic,” said Dooley, pointing out that the Vols had an upper class in which not many of the guys played and a sophomore class in which a lot of the guys were playing and weren’t mature enough to take ownership of the team.
“It’s hard to have a group of guys playing for each other, depending on each other and affecting others when they haven’t spent time together merging as a team.”
The other thing, according to Dooley, is that everything always seems worse when you’re losing.
“The injuries we had early in the year [notably to receiver Justin Hunter] hurt our spirit a little bit, and we were never able to overcome it psychologically,” Dooley said.
Even so, the Vols managed to pull together and have one of their best wins of the season the week before the Kentucky debacle when they came from behind to beat Vanderbilt in overtime.
“We saw a team go out there and play their hearts out together and have an awesome celebration in the locker room as a team, as a coaching staff, and everybody felt healthy about the program, and then one week later, we go out there and we look terrible on the football field, and now the football program is supposedly in disarray,” Dooley said. “It’s hard for me to balance that.
“What I do know is that we had some serious issues from a team makeup standpoint that we have to correct this year, and that affected us.”
Dooley has already seen signs that the leadership will be better in 2012. He thinks there are more juniors (and some seniors) who will take it upon themselves to be stronger leaders.
He also feels like the infusion of new blood on the coaching staff will help.
“Sometimes turnover can be a hard thing,” Dooley said. “Sometimes it can be an energizing thing. I believe that when you go through what we have the last two years, playing so many young players, you form a lot of scars in your relationships. Those scars sometimes take a long time to overcome, and having some new coaches with new energy and now coaching players who’re going to be a lot more mature in a lot of ways, can be a real positive thing to the program.”
Dooley is especially pleased with the signing class Tennessee was able to put together. Having so many coaches leave didn’t help the Vols’ recruiting process, and neither did the perception out there -- fair or unfair -- that Dooley will be coaching for his job in 2012.
The reality in the SEC is that you’re always coaching for your job. But when you’ve suffered through two losing seasons in a row and then end that second season by not even bothering to show up against a team you’ve beaten for 26 straight years, the hot-seat talk is going to ramp up like never before.
It’s just the way it is in this league.
Through it all, Dooley said the Vols were able to target and sign the players they wanted, and he said that’s further evidence that the foundation of the Tennessee program remains strong.
“We didn’t lose one recruit in all that negativity,” Dooley said. “That’s what people don’t realize. We lost a few right at the end for different reasons other than people saying I’m going to get fired. How we recruited and the kind of guys we recruited showed their character and showed we were selling the right thing.
“The most important thing was to focus on what’s real. Look at the two classes we signed prior to this and the talent base we’ve built and all the support structures in our program as it relates to developing you as a student, as a player, our facility growth, all that stuff and then look at all the things that make Tennessee special; its history, tradition, all the support and how it can touch you for the rest of your life.
“When you look at that, then you believe in the success we’re going to have here.”