KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said if a decision has been made about his future with the Volunteers, it’s news to him.
Dooley said at his Monday news conference that he hasn’t been told whether the Volunteers plan to remove him at the end of the season, contrary to reports suggesting such a move was inevitable.
Dooley said he had spoken with athletic director Dave Hart since the Vols’ 51-48 overtime loss Saturday to Missouri, and that Hart informed him nothing has been decided about the coach’s future.
“We talked very frankly about it,” Dooley said. “He told me he had not made a decision, if we go 6-6, despite what all the reports are. Either the sources are wrong or Dave wasn’t being forthright with me, and I have no reason to think Dave’s not being forthright with me. He’s an honest man. He’s always been honest with me. I’ve appreciated how he’s handled everything about this.”
Dooley has a 15-20 record in his three-year tenure. He’s 4-18 in the Southeastern Conference and 0-15 against Top 25 teams. Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) plays Saturday at Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3), the only SEC team to lose to the Vols over the last two seasons. Tennessee has lost 13 of its last 14 conference games.
Vanderbilt has been through similar situations this year.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was fired the day after the Wildcats’ 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt. Auburn coach Gene Chizik’s job status was the subject of much discussion in the days leading up to Vanderbilt’s 17-13 victory over the Tigers.
“I have a tremendous respect for Derek,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I have tremendous respect for the University of Tennessee. But our focus is completely on Vanderbilt. I don’t have time to spend thinking about those types of things. I really don’t.”
The Vols still can become bowl-eligible by winning at Vanderbilt and defeating Kentucky at home on Nov. 24. Dooley talked to his players before Monday’s practice about not getting distracted by the uncertainty surrounding his job status.
“Yeah, I addressed it,” Dooley said. “They’re getting banged up on their phone the way my kids were getting banged up on their phone, the way my wife was getting banged up (on her phone). Everybody said I was fired, and I didn’t even know it. I’m sitting there working on Vandy, and I’d already talked to Dave.”
Tennessee’s players indicated they’ve been dealing with these types of distractions for a few weeks now, but it reached a new level after Tennessee blew a 21-7 halftime lead and lost to Missouri.
“I’m getting text messages, calls, people on Twitter,” sophomore tailback/punt returner and Knoxville native Devrin Young said. “Every time I turn around, I’m hearing something about it. I’m giving them the same answers I’m giving you, and that’s to focus on the things I can control.”
The Vols realize that’s easier said than done.
“It’s pretty hard,” junior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “You all ask us. Families ask us. We get phone calls from parents and stuff like that. But I think we’re doing a pretty good job (staying focused) this year. We’re more mature.”
They’re also more competitive, though the Vols’ record doesn’t reflect it. In five of Tennessee’s six losses, the Vols either were ahead or trailed by one score in the second half.
But the Vols also are staring at the realistic possibility of producing three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1909-11. Tennessee’s defense has allowed the most points (37.0) and yards (480.2) per game of any SEC team.
The defense has struggled so much that Dooley spent nearly all his time working on that side of the ball last week and had defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri work from the press box Saturday for the first time this season. Dooley said he would continue that strategy this week.
Dooley, who practiced law before starting his coaching career, passed up a chance in his news conference to make a case on his behalf.
“I can’t make that decision,” Dooley said. “I can give you compelling arguments why I should (return), and there’s plenty of compelling arguments why I shouldn’t. It’s not going to be your decision. It’s not going to be a bunch of these sources’ decision. It’s Dave and the chancellor (Jimmy Cheek). It’s their decision. I can’t control what they think. We’ve had a lot of good dialogue. I think (Hart’s) got a good handle on how I do things in our program, where we are and why we’re not getting the results we want. You move on and live with it.”