To the surprise of exactly no one, Derek Dooley’s tenure at Tennessee didn’t make it to Thanksgiving.
Given the embarrassing 41-18 rout the Volunteers suffered Saturday at the hands of Vanderbilt, a lot of Tennessee fans figured he wouldn’t make the bus ride home.
Dooley could see it was inevitable. Winless in the SEC and assured of his third straight losing season — a first for Tennessee since William Howard Taft was president — the desperation on his face as quarterback Tyler Bray threw one miscue after another in Nashville was evident, as was the look of depressed resignation when the Commodores put the game out of hand.
Many Vanderbilt fans hadn’t gotten home from their celebration party when the news of Dooley’s firing broke.
“Derek and I met early this morning, and I informed him that I believed a change in leadership, despite the positive contributions he has made to the overall health of the program, was in the best long-term interests of Tennessee football,” Vols athletic director Dave Hart said through a written statement. “We will immediately begin the search for the best possible candidate to assume this leadership role.”
Dooley’s fate seemed sealed after the Vols lost to Missouri in overtime, although two wins against Vandy and Kentucky might have extended his tenure, at least for a while.
He had certainly been given the benefit of every doubt. Tennessee was a mess when Dooley arrived. The firing of Phil Fulmer still sparked passionate debate among Vols faithful, and the Lane Kiffin fiasco was like a blow to the head.
But the young new coach offered promise. He was polished, professional, and possessed a boot-strap work ethic and inspirational demeanor. He had worked for Nick Saban, which is like being trained at the feet of Zeus in the SEC. And he also sprang from legendary stock.
Father Vince Dooley was a conspicuous presence at many of his son’s games, often standing in the back of the room during press conferences studying stat sheets as if they were the Rosetta stone. The elder Dooley even wore orange, a visual affront to those Georgia fans who still viewed the Dooleys as one step removed from royalty.
Derek Dooley was given a lot of leeway in his first couple of seasons at Tennessee. The Kiffin hangover lingered through the first year. The second year, injuries and a brutal accident of scheduling left the Vols reeling.
But the third year was to be the charm. The freshmen first coached by Dooley were juniors now, including Bray who was mentioned in the same sentence with the word “Heisman” in and around Knoxville. A wide-open passing game was supposed to put incredible numbers on the board for the Vols, and a vastly improved defense would lead to a wealth of wins. Plus, Tennessee had constructed one of the most post athletic centers in the nation to attract and retain the nation’s best recruits.
An opening victory against North Carolina State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic only heightened expectations.
But then losses to Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in a six-game stretch deflated it all, and sent Vol fans over the edge.
Throw in the fact that Hart didn’t hire Dooley, and the outcome was evident for all to see. The loss to Vandy simply expedited the timing.
“I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future,” Dooley said through a statement of his own. “Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program. During the last 34 months, I’ve given my all for Tennessee, and our family appreciates all this University and the Knoxville community has given us.”