Vols at a crossroads with this next hire

The official word on Derek Dooley came down Sunday morning in the aftermath of the Vols’ worst beating by Vanderbilt in nearly 60 years.

He is out as Tennessee’s head football coach.

In reality, though, Dooley might as well have been out after losing his team and then the game to Kentucky to end last season, when the Wildcats beat a lifeless Tennessee team with a receiver filling in at quarterback.

From that point on, Dooley was on his way to his football funeral. It was just a matter of how long it was going to take him to get there.

Tennessee is a proud program with a proud history, but there’s never been another time when the Vols were this irrelevant and this broken.

There’s no question that Dooley inherited a mess, and the best thing that he did was to upgrade the roster. But when you lose 19 of the 23 SEC games in which you coach, including 14 of the past 15, and drop games to Kentucky and Vanderbilt along the way, you’re simply not going to survive.

It doesn’t matter what shape the program was in when you arrived.

History will not be kind to Dooley and his three years on the job, which produced three straight losing seasons.

The alarms were already sounding after the embarrassing defeat at Kentucky last season, especially when Dooley never seemed to fully grasp just how damaging that loss was and how some of his key players laid down in that game.

Soon after that debacle in the Bluegrass State, the mass exodus on his staff began, and the Vols entered the 2012 season with seven new assistants. It was almost as if somebody yelled, “Fire.”

The hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator has been an utter disaster. The Vols tried to jam a square peg into a round hole by transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and the result was a defense that will go down as the worst in school history. Tennessee has given up at least 37 points in all seven SEC losses this season, and the confusion on the field has been mind-numbing at times.

Consider this: The Vols gave up 48 points and a school-worst 721 yards in total offense to Troy two weeks ago in a 55-48 win, and Troy has a losing record in the Sun Belt Conference.

In that same Troy game, there were more than 40,000 empty seats at Neyland Stadium.

And then the next week, Tennessee lost 51-48 in four overtimes to Missouri at home after Dooley chose to let the clock run out at the end of regulation despite having two timeouts. As one longtime Tennessee athletics employee told me, he’s never heard boos that thunderous inside Neyland Stadium that were directed at somebody on the home sideline.

Dooley, who walks away with a $5 million buyout, will not coach the Vols’ final game against Kentucky. It was his choice to step aside and let offensive coordinator Jim Chaney handle those duties. Dooley didn’t want to be a distraction to the seniors playing in their final home game, and he didn’t want to put his family through another week of torture.

Even though Dooley will be the main culprit for this massive crash, he’s not the one who started the fire.

The fire was started long ago on Tennessee’s campus, and it goes back to poor leadership at the top. Following Joe Johnson’s retirement as president, the university went through one bad hire after another at president, and then Mike Hamilton’s tenure as athletic director was wrought with the kind of turmoil, mismanagement and general lack of leadership that the entire athletic department is still paying for.

Once a model of stability, Tennessee is now seeking what will be its fourth head coach in the past six years.

When Hamilton, with the backing of key boosters, ran Phillip Fulmer out of town following the 2008 season, the fear was that the program was skidding dangerously close to mediocrity.

And there’s no question that the program had dipped under Fulmer with losing seasons in two of his last four years and some blowout losses to key rivals such as Alabama and Florida. But he also went to five SEC championship games in his last 11 years and was a year removed from playing eventual national champion LSU to a narrow loss in the 2007 SEC championship game.

Compared to where the program is now, those seem like the glory days.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, in announcing Dooley’s firing Sunday at his news conference, reminded everyone that Tennessee is a great place, but acknowledged that the program is at a crossroads.

The translation: The Vols need to score big with this next hire or they could be looking at the kind of football wasteland that takes a decade or more to fix.