Dooley, I want me to want you!
If you want to sum up Derek Dooley’s unfortunate and, at times, unorganized and unimpressive tenure at the University of Tennessee, just pick an LSU game. Last year, Dooley took an undermanned, over-matched team into Death Valley as a double digit underdog and came within a few seconds and a couple of extra players from pulling one of the biggest upsets of the season. Instead, due to mass confusion on the Tennessee sideline and the continued charmed life of Les Miles, Tennessee players and fans experienced one of the most heart-breaking losses in the history of college football. Wild outbreaks of spontaneous celebration in the stands and in living rooms all over East Tennessee quickly turned to shock, disbelief, and then a feeling that has become all too familiar to Vols fans, defeatism.
Fast forward a year, 5 games into a second, and perhaps even more unlucky Tennessee season. Its best defensive player booted from the team and its two best offensive players out for the better part of the season, the Vols came into their rematch with number 1 ranked LSU team as double digit dogs in Neyland Stadium (something that used to never happen, but seems to occur more and more often). No one gave the Vols a chance to be in this game, or even to keep it respectable, but here they were, near the end of the first quarter, in a 0-0 contest with one of the best teams in the county. There were positive signs, a good kick return, a decent running game, and a defense that was holding LSU’s running game in check. A crowd that was hungry for a great effort. Could the stars align? It looked for a while like we could have made a game of this, just like last year.
But just as the first quarter was coming to a close, yet another series of unfortunate events, the kind that have come to define Dooley’s UT coaching career unfolded to once again to crush the hopes of the Vol nation. Here’s how it unfolded from where I was sitting:
The Vols defense, playing a solid game thus far, held LSU on a crucial 3rd and 1 play just when it looked like the Tigers were marching down the field. The stadium was rocking as it appeared that Lucky Les might try to go for it on fourth down from the 35 yard line. The stadium was as loud as it had been all year.
Instead of trying to go for the first down, Miles sends on his field goal unit. As the kicker lines up to attempt the 52 yard field goal, it feels like something big could happen. I turn to my buddy and say “man, it would be awesome to block this thing.” Which of course we did, after which every single person wearing orange in the stadium goes wild. The crowd is electric and momentum is clearly on the side of the man in the orange pants. This is the big break we need! But wait, what are those two flags doing on the field? Seriously, were we offsides? No? Okay what? Did we get called for a player launching himself over the line? Oh, that was legal? What then? Actually, the flags weren’t meant for us. Turns out one of the most critical plays in the game, a clear momentum shifter that had the players and crowd pumped, never really happened.
The penalty was on LSU, and normally that’s good, but this time not so much. See Lucky Les’ team didn’t get the kick off in time, of course they didn’t, cause it was blocked. They were called for a delay of game. Turns out sometimes a call goes against you even when it goes down in the box score against them. LSU gets a five yard penalty and instead of Tennessee getting the ball on the about the 35 yard line or better, LSU punts the ball and pins the Vols around the 10 yard line.
Okay, so a little life was sucked out of the stadium when the kick block turned into a punt, but the defense still held. We all assumed the Vols would run the ball and run some clock, play field position. But instead Cheney and Dooley dial up a wheel route to Rajon Neal who makes an incredible catch, maybe the catch of the year, on the sideline. The catch, which was called incomplete on the field, is reversed and the crowd once again goes wild. The same euphoria felt during the blocked kick. . .that didn’t happen. It was beginning to look like luck could be on the Vols side tonight, which a catch like that. The score was still 0-0 and LSU had just been punched in the mouth. Maybe we could take this ball down the field and punch it in for 6.
Nope. In what has been a sign of a Dooley led Tennessee team, a bit of good fortune or a glimmer of hope was immediately followed by a bushel of bad luck. Simms dropped back to pass on the very next play (PASS I tell you, not a run the clock running play) and instead of hitting a wide open tight end who maybe could have walked in for a touch down, he throws the ball deep. Well, just not deep enough, and into double coverage. Of course an LSU defensive back was there to pick off the pass, and of course he returns it the length of the field to the two or three yard line. In two plays, LSU crossed the goal line, scored their first touchdown, and never looked back. That quickly, in the span of a few minutes, the game was over and the team and the fans knew it.
I said this before the game and I will say it now: I want to love Dooley and I want him to succeed here. I like his swagger, I like what he has to say, and I like the no-nonsense attitude. I get it, he’s got the persona to be one badass coach. And I think he has brought in some good kids and I think he has hired good coaches. That said, I think he has to be the unluckiest coach in America. He cannot catch a break, unless by break you would be referring to one of his players, like maybe his star quarterback’s thumb. And here is the almost humorous part, it seems each week fate finds a new and different way to tease Dooley and all Vol fans, and to rip hope from their grasp before they’ve even had a chance to grasp it.
And before we blame it all on misfortune, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s not just bad luck, its also confusion. Dooley, who seems to be the epitome of organization, roams a sideline where, at times both this and last season, confusion seems to prevail. It wasn’t bad luck that sent 13 men on the field last year. And it wasn’t bad luck that caused Dooley to burn timeouts in this game. And the frustrating thing is that these timeouts were used for the most part after a great UT play, either offense or defense, when the crowd was loud and into the game, and when we just couldn’t get the right players onto the field or we just couldn’t get into the right formation. Dooley’s game management skills have to improve, HAVE TO. He’s already unlucky enough, he can’t afford to allow the sideline chaos to continue throughout the season. Look, I’m not calling for Dooley’s head, just saying his players are expected to improve, so why can’t we ask that of his performances too.
As I sit here, writing this, I’m feeling pretty low. It’s just no fun to be a Tennessee fan right now and I’m tired of the bad luck and heartbreak and the Chinese fire drills on the sidelines. I want Dooley to succeed, we need Dooley to succeed. We cannot have another coach in a few years, we need stability more than anything. And look, I know he needs players to succeed and I know we have a depleted roster, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a fan my confidence in the direction of our program is at an all time low. But I can say this, if you put Dooley and Miles in front of me to interview, and I know nothing about either one of them or their coaching records, I guarantee you I’m hiring Dooley every single time. But in reality one of these coaches is in the running for luckiest guy on the planet and the other stands as much chance of winning a big game this season as a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest. Yeah, I know, that analogy is terrible and poorly timed. . .just like Dooley’s luck.