Dooley, Vols still getting kicked around

We’re about two weeks away from the 50-year anniversary of one of the most famous quotes in American political history.

Former President Richard Nixon, upon losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, defiantly told reporters, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, himself an avid history buff, borrowed Nixon’s famous line back in July.

Only Dooley wasn’t so much speaking to the media as he was to the rest of the SEC when he proclaimed, “You won’t have Tennessee to kick around anymore.”

Well, the Vols have played four SEC games in what is Dooley’s third season, and it’s safe to say they’re still getting kicked around. They’re winless in the SEC and have yielded a staggering 173 points in four games.

In their past 12 SEC games going back to last season, they’re 1-11.

For perspective, Vanderbilt is 3-9 in its past 12 SEC games. Kentucky is 2-10 in its past 12 SEC games, and one of the Wildcats’ two wins came over Tennessee to end last season and snap the Vols’ 26-game winning streak in the series.

To say the fan base on Rocky Top is reaching the point of unrest is putting it mildly.

Finding staunch Dooley supporters at this point is about as easy as finding beachfront property in Knoxville.

The 44-13 blowout loss to Alabama last week was ugly, although the Crimson Tide have made a living of doing that to teams. Still, the scene in Neyland Stadium those last four or five minutes Saturday was reminiscent of Phillip Fulmer’s last game against Alabama in 2008.

A sea of crimson was about all that remained to see the Vols kick a garbage-time field goal from the 3-yard line with just under four minutes to play.

That’s sort of where Tennessee’s program is right now. The Vols aren’t relevant nationally, and haven’t been relevant for some time now going back to the end of Fulmer’s tenure.

About the only time they really were came during Lane Kiffin’s turbulent 14 months on the job when he would pop off about something and get Urban Meyer all stirred up.

Some would argue that Dooley was fighting a losing battle the day he walked onto campus. The roster had been severely depleted thanks to some poor signing classes under Fulmer his last year or two, and all the attrition that took place in the transition from Fulmer to Kiffin to Dooley.

It also didn’t help that Kiffin’s only signing class, ranked in the top 10 by some analysts in 2009, ended up being a huge bust. Only seven players remain on the Vols’ roster from that class, and all of the big names from that class -- Bryce Brown, Janzen Jackson, Nu’Keese Richardson, Darren Myles Jr. and David Oku -- either left the program early or got into trouble off the field and were kicked off the team.

The other killer for Dooley was that Kiffin’s 2009 class and Fulmer’s last class in 2008 were both scarcely thin in the offensive and defensive lines.

So when you look at Tennessee’s current roster, it’s unfair to say that Dooley hasn’t made significant progress in upgrading the talent from where he found it in 2010.

The problem is that he hasn’t done much with it.

His first two seasons were throwaways. They didn’t really count, although the Kentucky loss to end last season and the way Dooley lost his team there at the end were more damaging than anybody will ever know.

This was the season that he needed to show real progress, and while the Vols have been competitive for parts of games, they don’t have anything to show for it where it counts -- their record.

Has Dooley had enough time to show those results in what is the best conference in college football? It depends on who you ask.

It’s almost eerie when you think about it, but John Majors and Fulmer were both fired after losses to South Carolina.

Sure enough, the Vols have South Carolina this weekend in Columbia, S.C.

Dooley could certainly help himself with a win against the Gamecocks, but it’s unlikely that a win against anybody Tennessee plays in November (Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky) would help his cause.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart didn’t hire Dooley, and that’s never ideal for the coach. But Hart’s also shrewd enough and seasoned enough that he’s not going to be influenced solely by an angry fan base.

Hart knows what a championship football program looks like. He was at Alabama before he came to Tennessee, and Florida State before that.

Sure, Dooley would be owed $5 million if the Vols were to fire him after this season, but Hart understands the bigger picture well enough to know that it’s going to cost Tennessee a lot more money down the road if Dooley remains and the hemorrhaging continues.

It’s also telling that Tennessee still had tickets remaining for the Alabama game … in the weeks leading up to the game.

Ultimately, Hart’s decision boils down to one two-part question: Does he think Dooley is the right guy to elevate Tennessee’s program back among the SEC’s elite, and would a fourth season under Dooley get the Vols closer to that goal?

One thing’s for sure, though. The Vols are still getting kicked around.

When Nixon uttered his famous line 50 years ago, it was thought that his political career was over. He fooled everybody by bouncing back and winning the Presidency.

Perhaps Dooley has the same kind of comeback in him. But right now, he’s way behind in all of the polls.