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10 memorable days from the Derek Dooley era

Derek Dooley Era

The Derek Dooley era at the University of Tennessee has finally, if not mercifully, come to a close. Immediately following the Vanderbilt game, I predicted that UT athletic director Dave Hart would wait until after the Kentucky game to make it official, but by the time I’d woken up on Sunday, I began to wonder if word might come sooner. When I tuned into The Derek Dooley Show, I sensed it already had, at least to Dooley, himself. This based on his appearance alone.

He was without a tie and the familiar power T pin, both of which were staples for his TV attire. He looked defeated. Gone was that forced if not frustrating brand of optimism he continuously toted about. Gone, too, was any talk of the following week.

Dooley no longer looked like a dead man walking. He just looked like a dead man.

Can you imagine the guts it took to go ahead and do that show? He didn’t have to, you know. But he did it anyway. And I salute Coach for that. That showed a lot about his character. So, too, did his behavior over the past couple of weeks. Say what you want about the guy, but he handled an impossible situation with as much dignity and class as was humanly possible. And while I’m not at all sorry that he’s gone, I am sorry that things didn’t work out any better for him while he was here. Goodness knows he tried.

And goodness knows he’s left his mark. For even though his time here was brief, it was certainly memorable. Here are ten days that stick out a bit more than the rest:

The Derek Dooley Era: Looking Back

 

9/11/2010 — Knoxville, TN

In Dooley’s second game at UT, and after an hourlong weather delay, Tennessee startles even themselves by going up 13-3 on seventh-ranked Oregon. But the explosive Ducks, who would go on to play Auburn in the BCS Championship Game, turned on the afterburners and scored the game’s final 45 points, obliterating the Vols 48-13.

Looking back, this game serves as the perfect microcosm for the Derek Dooley area. A promising start fueled the optimism of potential that was so readily apparent. But that optimism faded as the potential never actualized. Instead, things actually got worse. And worse. And worse. Until, suddenly, they’d gotten completely out of hand.

The lightning storm was a nice piece of dramatic foreshadowing, both for the game and for what was to come in the Derek Dooley era.

10/02/2010 — Baton Rouge, LA

LSU’s botched snap on a 3rd and goal as the game clock ran out seemingly gave the upstart Tennessee Vols their first signature win under head coach Derek Dooley. But in the chaos of the game’s waning moments, two Tennessee players failed to make it to the sidelines before LSU had snapped the ball.

The ensuing penalty for too many men on the field gave the Tigers a second chance which they capitalized on by scoring a touchdown, thus winning the game in the most unlikely of manners, 16-14.

10/25/2010 — Knoxville, TN

The Vols were coming off three straight losses — the heartbreaker against LSU, then two blowouts at the hands of Georgia and Alabama. At times during those blowouts, the Tennessee players looked shellshocked. Dooley drove that point home in his Monday press conference by comparing his young squad to Nazi soldiers during the Allies’ invasion of Normandy.

“Right now we’re like the Germans in World War II…Here comes the boats, they’re coming. You have the binoculars, and it’s like: ‘Oh, my God, the invasion is coming…now what do we do? We better wait until Rommel tells us what to do.’ ”

Most people thought his comments were hysterical, but I wasn’t one of them, but maybe that was just because I was never looking for Dooley to make me laugh. I was looking for him to coach the Vols.

Besides, part of me wondered whether he’d mistaken his team for himself. Because one thing that was easy to see up to that point was that the inexperienced coach often looked just as shellshocked as his inexperienced team. By now, it’s safe to say that Rommel never did tell any of them what to do.

Including Dooley.

12/30/2010 — Nashville, TN

The Vols ended the regular season with four straight victories, their first ever winning streak in the Derek Dooley era. (Dooley would go on to have just two more winning streaks, each to start a season, each lasting a meager two games.) Their 6-6 record was good enough to earn them a berth in the Music City Bowl where they faced the University of North Carolina.

The Vols played well enough to win and had seemingly done just that when time ran out as UNC tried to kill the clock in hopes of setting up a last-second field goal. But after further review, the refs determined that there was one second remaining when quarterback T. J. Yates had spiked the ball.

Even so, the play had been an out-an-out disaster. Half the Tarheel team had been on the field, including the kicker who was comically lined up behind Yates as the ball was snapped. Surely there’d be a penalty and the Vols would win the game, right?

Right. If college football had the ten-second runoff rule. But college football doesn’t have the ten-second runoff rule, which meant that the Tarheels were penalized five yards and awarded a second chance, one that North Carolina took advantage of by drilling the 39-yard field goal that forced overtime.

UNC scored a touchdown on their first possession of overtime, but Tyler Bray answered quickly with a strike to Luke Stocker on the Vols’ second play of the ensuing possession.

Then, in a moment Vol fans will never forget, Bray turned defiantly to the Tarheel sideline delivered the throat-slashing gesture multiple times, reducing himself to a complete punk in the process.

Derek Dooley era

C’mon, man.

Karma struck quickly as on the very next series, Bray threw an interception which essentially cost the Vols the game. All UNC needed was another field goal, which they got, along with a 30-27 victory.

Bray’s pick also cost Dooley a winning record in his first year on the job. The Vols finished the tumultuous season at 6-7.

9/17/2011 — Gainesville, FL

The Vols opened the 2011 season in impressive manner with easy wins over Montana and a pretty good Cincinnati team. Their offense looked deadly thanks in part to the maturing trio of Tyler Bray, Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. As a result, Tennessee entered its matchup against Florida with a realistic chance of getting its first W against the Gators in six years.

But on just the fourth play from scrimmage, Justin Hunter went down with an ACL injury that would not only end his season, but also change the entire trajectory of the Vols’ 2011 campaign. Florida wound up beating Tennessee 33-23, but the loss paled in comparison to losing number 11.

As if that wasn’t enough, Tennessee would go on to lose Bray for several games just three weeks later when he broke his hand against Georgia.

11/19/2011 — Knoxville, TN

The injury-depleted Vols once again struggled through October, dropping four straight conference games before finally bouncing back by defeating MTSU on the first Saturday of November.

But the following week would be Tennessee’s worst game of the year — a 49-7 shellacking at the hands of Arkansas. And it was on the heels of that disappointing effort which Tennessee hoped to get well against Vanderbilt. But the Commodores were hungrier than ever under first-year coach James Franklin. As such, they rolled into Neyland with great confidence, eager, it seemed, to make a statement.

And they almost did. But with Tyler Bray once again under center, the Vols scored a comeback victory, thanks to a clutch touchdown reception by Da’Rick Rogers and a 90-yard pick six by Eric Gordon that sealed the deal in the first overtime.

The only reason this game made the list is because of the post-game celebration. The one in which the Vols, who had finally notched their first SEC win of the year, celebrated as if they’d just clinched the East. In that celebration, Dooley can be heard telling his team:

“The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the shit out of Vanderbilt.”

I’ll never fault a coach for celebrating a victory in the privacy of his locker room (even if the celebration was bigger than the accomplishment warranted). That moment was supposed to be between Dooley and his team. It should have never been filmed.

But it was filmed and once the video hit YouTube, it wasn’t well received. Many felt it cast Dooley in a bad light. And given how things would ultimately turn out, one can’t help but to see an erie parallel between Dooley’s post-Vandy victory speech and Tyler’s premature throat-slashing.

Bray’s gesture was avenged the next series and cost him the game.

Dooley’s was avenged the next year and cost him his job.

11/26/2011 — Lexington, KY

Fresh off of their overtime victory against Vanderbilt, Tennessee went into Lexington needing a win against the woeful Wildcats to clinch their second consecutive bowl game appearance. But it was too tall of an order despite the fact that Kentucky started a wide received under center. Tennessee put forth the most listless effort imaginable, as they stood by and watched the Wildcats snap their 26-game losing streak to the Vols with a 10-7 win. It looked as if the players had quit on their coach. At the time, it was believed to be our darkest hour.

In the days that followed, the Vol Nation learned more than they ever wanted to know about their team, as stories emerged that painted an ugly picture of life behind the Big Orange curtain. In the wake of the Kentucky debacle, fallout was inevitable. Many of Dooley’s staff would leave Tennessee for one reason or another, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox being chief among them.

Little did the Tennessee faithful know at that point just how big of a development this would prove to be.

9/15/2012 — Knoxville, TN

In 2012, Tennessee got off to another promising start, surviving an early-season test against the formidable Wolfpack of NC State, then defeating an undermanned Georgia State team. The Vols entered their showdown against Florida with high hopes, as well as their first national ranking in several years.

ESPN’s Gameday was in Knoxville and to many, it felt like the 23rd-ranked Volunteers had finally regained the relevance which had eluded them for so long. What’s more, Tennessee opened up as three-point favorites and they spent much of the first two and a half quarters showing the nation why. They were dominating Florida in every facet of the game.

Sensing the contest was getting away, Florida’s Will Muschamp panicked and dialed up a fake punt which Tennessee snuffed out. When the dust settled the Vols had it 1st and 10 in plus territory, up 20-13 late in the third quarter in front of an impossibly rowdy crowd that was hungry for a big-time SEC win. Every ounce of momentum was with the Vols. The game was theirs to lose.

Which they somehow managed to do.

Dooley looked shell-shocked as he watched Florida turn the tide. Of course, they had some help. Tennessee receivers had several dropped balls and Sal Suneri’s 3-4 defense experienced a series of monumental breakdowns in rapid succession.

In the span of mere minutes, the Gators rattled off plays of 80, 45, 23 and 75 yards, three of them going for touchdowns. Florida scored the game’s final 24 points and defeated the Vols by a score of 37-20. Adding insult to injury, the Vols lost starting free safety Brian Randolph for the season to an ACL injury.

After the game, much was made of the body language of Tyler Bray who, despite playing well for most of the game, simply crumbled once the pressure was on.

This was the beginning of the end for the Derek Dooley era.

11/10/2012 — Knoxville, TN

By the time the Missouri game rolled around, it had become evident that the Achille’s heel of the 2012 Vols was Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 defense. They were setting the kinds of records you never want to set and in so doing, they made each and every offense they faced look far better than they actually were. Simply put, it’d be hard to create a worse defense if you tried.

Even so, Bray had played exceptionally well the past few weeks and despite suffering through yet another dismal October, Tennessee still had a chance to win out and finish at 7-5. Though most expected more wins at the beginning of the season, many believed it would still be enough to save Dooley’s job.

The first half belonged to Tennessee. They dominated the Tigers on both sides of the ball and headed into the break up 21-7. But the second half saw the Tennessee defense resort back to form and despite being outmatched the entire game, Missouri had the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie. They did just that on a 25-yard touchdown pass on 4th and 12. It was their second fourth-and-long conversion of the drive. Missouri won the game in the fourth overtime by a score of 51-48.

After the game much was made of Dooley’s decision to let the final 40 seconds of regulation tick away despite the fact that the Vols had excellent field position and were just two or three completions away from field goal range.

With the loss, the bottom had officially fallen out of the 2012 season. In their loss to South Carolina just two weeks prior, UT had become only the second team in SEC history (along with Vanderbilt) to begin 0-5 in conference play in three consecutive seasons. In their loss to Mizzou, the Vols set another record — one they had all to themselves. UT became the only team in SEC history to ever allow 38 or more points in six consecutive SEC contests.

It’s worth noting that Florida came just one point short of making that record even more dubious.

11/17/2012 — Nashville, TN

Derek Dooley and the Vols went into Saturday’s game against the Commodores hoping that Dooley was right just 12 months before. Because if there’s anything the Vols needed, it was, indeed, to kick the shit out of Vanderbilt. But on this fateful night, it would be the other way around.

There was a bright spot, however. Early in the second quarter, Tyler Bray found Zach Rogers in the end zone. The extra point would give the Vols a 7-3 lead. But like most brights spots in the Derek Dooley era, this one was quickly eclipsed. After the play, Tyler turned and stared down the Vanderbilt sideline in a move that was reminiscent of his actions against UNC some 25 months prior.

No throat slashing this time, but still plenty of punk on display. It was a full circle-moment to be certain. For despite all the time that had elapsed in the Derek Dooley era, Bray’s actions made it abundantly clear that very little had actually changed.

Except, perhaps, that Tennessee no longer kicks the shit out of Vanderbilt. Because karma would once again get Tyler Bray and the Tennessee Vols. And, as was the case against UNC, it would happen on Tennessee’s very next possession when one of Bray’s passes was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by a defensive lineman.

Dooley decided to bench Bray on the next offensive series. Six plays later, back up Justin Worley threw an interception which Vanderbilt returned to the Tennessee 17. Three plays after that, Vanderbilt regained the lead with their first touchdown of the night. They would never look back.

The end result was a public shaming. Vanderbilt beat the Vols in Nashville for the first time in 30 years. Even worse for Vol fans was the 41-18 final score. It will go down as one of the bleakest moments in the history of Tennessee football.

Anchor down, indeed. To rock bottom, in fact. Or, as one reader so cleverly coined in an email, Anchor down to 20,000 leagues under the SEC.

Derek Dooley was officially released by the University of Tennessee the very next day.

The Derek Dooley era never did get that signature win. The closest he ever came was against LSU in 2010. Shortly after that game, Dooley summed things up by saying, “Sometimes you do everything right and things don’t go your way. All you can do is move on.”

Which is exactly what he and the Tennessee Vols are doing now.

Moving on.

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