Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Case for Derek Dooley: Why Tennessee Fans Need a Reality Check

Far be it from me to tell SEC fans to be reasonable. We’re a zealous bunch when it comes to football, and having a losing team is damn near the equivalent to wearing the “cone of shame.” This unrelenting passion is what pays Nick Saban $5 million per, has Gene Chizik on the hot seat less than two years removed from a national title, and it’s what motivates this guy. And this guy.

But this passion also breeds a culture where adaptation is seen as weakness and tradition is carried like a flag into battle. Even if that tradition is fading.

Such is the case of Derek Dooley at Tennessee.

After being about the eighth offer to replace one-and-done Lane Kiffin, Dooley’s two-plus years in Knoxville have been disastrous by Tennessee standards. He’s 0-12 against ranked teams and winless against conference rivals Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia. He’s yet to earn a conference win on the road, and the 26 game win streak over Kentucky ended last season.

But for those clamoring for Dooley’s head, it’s time to wake up and face reality. The school and fan base need to redefine what it means to be a national power in modern college football.

It was easy to get spoiled after decades of winning the old way, when the Tennessee brand carried it’s own weight. But that world has gone the way of cable tv and paper back books. Now, college football is being shaped more by flashy uniforms and YouTube videos than anything you might consider traditional. Play in front of 102,000 in Neyland Stadium? Please... Try playing USC while wearing state of the art apparel fresh off the design floor at Nike in front of a TV/online audience of millions with LeBron and D Wade on the sidelines at Autzen Stadium while trending on Twitter.

This is the new college football; an NFL D-League where recruits are lured by amenities and “cool”-factor. Sell a high schooler on tradition? You might as well give them a Mel Torme album for its cultural significance.

Comparatively, Tennessee purists seem more like bitter old men stashing money in their mattress than forward thinking investors. Alternate uniforms? It’s happened only once and radio stations and message boards lit up with fans appalled by the change. (It was ironically the last time the team beat a ranked opponent.) Modern facilities? UT’s brand new, $45 million updates pale in comparison to Southern Cal’s $70 million John McKay Center. Recruiting without these advantages? Dooley has been left to rely on his charisma and personality... and we all know what that’s like...

Therefore, the university must decide what it wants to be. To maintain the present course is to accept a future somewhere in the median. But if years of invites to the Music City Bowl are ahead, then blaming Dooley for losing to programs who’ve made far greater investments into winning is asinine. No individual coach is powerful enough to overcome odds like these. Even those with household names like Saban and Spurrier  need major commitments from their respective universities to succeed. Without this, they might as well be coaching a high school team to state titles.

I don’t believe Dooley will ever be looked upon as a football genius or as a legend like his father, but neither will 99 percent of all coaches. If he’s fired this season, I’ll feel terribly for him because doesn’t deserve it. If the university wants to win now, then good luck making another Kiffin-esque hire. Desperation can lead to some very poor decisions. Just ask Arkansas.

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