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Dooley's Out as UT Football Coach. What Comes Next?

Even after last week's crushingly disappointing four-overtime loss to SEC newcomers Missouri, Derek Dooley still seemed to have some leverage left. The odds were against him, as the persistent rumors about a Monday or Tuesday press conference to announce his firing indicated, but the $5 million buyout clause in his contract was still worth considering, in light of the program's recent (not so) merry-go-round of exorbitant coaching fires, hires, and buyouts. But last night's humiliating, historic blowout in Nashville to Vanderbilt left no doubt that Dooley would not survive, and UT Athletic Director Dave Hart didn't even wait until Monday to make his announcement. It's official now, after weeks of speculation: Dooley's been fired, effective immediately. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will coach the Vols against Kentucky on Saturday. 

Dooley's not-quite three-year tenure at UT started with mediocrity and went downhill from there. In 2010, after a 2-6 start, the Vols went 4-0 in November but lost a close Music City Bowl game to North Carolina in overtime, leaving them with a losing record. That year, Dooley was working with a program left in shambles by Lane Kiffin's unexpected departure to USC--pending NCAA sanctions, a patchwork recruiting class, quarterback controversy, and player defections meant just making it to a bowl game felt like a small success. But last year's 5-7 final record (1-7 in the SEC) and a deflating loss to Kentucky, the Vols' first since 1984, made Dooley's seat one of the hottest in major college football. Eleven games into this season, the Vols are 4-7, winless in the SEC, and with only one win against a major-conference opponent (over an emphatically middle-of-the-road North Carolina State), and they rank near the bottom nationally in most defensive categories. The defensive shortcomings in 2012 under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri, in particular--a clueless secondary, an ineffective linebacking corps, and a record-setting offensive performance by Troy (!), a total of 411 points surrendered so far (303 of those against SEC opponents)--made this season feel even worse than the team's lousy record indicated. But the offense, generally regarded as the fall's only bright spot, contributed its share to this year's apocalyptic mood: the dismal second-half performance against Florida dashed the hopes built by an early 2-0 record and the team's first national ranking since 2007, and last night's offensive bankruptcy--303 total yards, three turnovers, a single offensive touchdown--will rank as a historic low among Vol fans. 

After the Vanderbilt loss, Hart's decision was inevitable. Even if Dooley had been allowed to complete his four-year contract, he'd done little to convince anyone he could ever be expected to compete for the SEC East championship, much less an overall conference title or BCS bowl bids. His overall record is 15-21, 4-19 in the SEC, 0-15 against ranked opponents. One thing to remember: Dooley was nobody's first choice. His only previous head-coaching experience, at Louisina Tech, was less than distinguished. But Kiffin's late-offseason departure meant that all the first-class hires in 2010 had already been made. So the tumult that began in the last years of Phil Fulmer's career isn't over. The coach most fans seem to want, John Gruden, seems perfectly happy as an ESPN analyst, and there's no guarantee that the other leading candidates on talk radio--Bobby Petrino, Gary Patterson--would be able to turn UT football around in just a few years. The program is in tatters, and firing a coach less than three years into a four-year contract--no matter how much it had to be done--doesn't make the job any more attractive. Dooley wasn't a great pick in the first place, but is there really any good reason to believe that a top-flight choice wants to come here to clean up his mess? (There's also the fact that the entire athletic department these days is something of a battlefield, with Hart's uneasy consolidation of the men's and women's athletic programs into a single unit and the bumpy starts to both the men's and women's basketball seasons so far.) 

In the profile of Hart I wrote at the beginning of the football season, I wrote the following that fans should keep in mind for the forseeable future: 

"Despite the assumptions of hardcore fans, there is no guarantee that UT will ever return to the glories of the 1998 national football championship or the number-one basketball ranking Pearl led his team to in 2008. The competitive standards of college football and basketball get fiercer every year, and the financial stakes have never been higher. Every year that Dooley and Martin spend catching up to the successes of their predecessors is another year that top-flight schools have to recruit bigger and faster players, develop innovative schemes, and add on to 100,000-capacity stadiums--in short, to stay ahead of schools like UT."

(And that's all without considering all the ethical questions about the role big-budget and largely professionalized sports should have at a state-funded educational institution.)

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