Dooley paid dues to get his UT shot
Georgia baseball coach David Perno still remembers his telephone ringing late in the night on Jan. 2, 1996.
On the line was Perno's best friend, Derek Dooley, who is the youngest son of former Georgia football coach Vince Dooley. The former Virginia wide receiver was working as an attorney at one of the top law firms in Atlanta.
But after watching Nebraska throttle Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the 1995 national championship, Dooley was ready to make a life-altering decision.
"Why are you whispering?" Perno asked him.
"Because my in-laws are in the house and they're not real happy with me," Dooley said. "I just told them I was quitting my job to become a football coach."
Perno, who had known Dooley since they were young boys growing up in Athens, Ga., didn't try to talk his friend out of what Dooley's family thought was a premature midlife crisis.
"I don't think his in-laws and family were particularly happy about it, but he had to do it," Perno said. "It was just in his blood."
As unpopular as Dooley's decision might have been at the time, it was validated Friday. Dooley was named Tennessee's new football coach, replacing Lane Kiffin, who had bolted for USC only three days earlier. After compiling a 17-20 record in three seasons as Louisiana Tech's coach, Dooley was a rather surprising choice to take over the Volunteers.
But the people closest to Dooley are confident he will end up being the right choice.
"I think the key thing is Derek sees the big picture," said Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who recommended Dooley for the job after being contacted by Tennessee officials about his own interest. "He understands offense, defense, special teams, recruiting and how to handle the media. He's very articulate and smart. He'll have a lot of success."
More than four decades ago, Vince Dooley was only 31 when he was hired as Georgia's coach. A relatively unknown Auburn assistant at the time, Vince wasn't a very popular choice among Bulldogs fans, either.
"I'd say I would have been the least popular choice," Vince said. "My qualifications were 10 times less than Derek's."
Derek, now 41, never thought he would follow in his famous father's footsteps. In fact, at times it seemed as if Dooley was determined to escape his father's intimidating shadow. Vince Dooley is the winningest coach in Georgia history and led the Bulldogs to six SEC titles and the 1980 national championship during a 25-year head-coaching career.
"I've always had a mind of my own," Derek said. "I've always appreciated the fact I was Vince Dooley's son and recognized the benefits that came with it. But I always wanted to forge my own identity. I'm not trying to say I'm not Vince Dooley's son, but I want to have my own identity."
Dooley's uncle, Bill Dooley, a former coach at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, said his nephew was determined not to ride his father's coattails into the coaching profession.
"I think that's one of the key things about him: He wants to be his own man," Bill said. "When you do that, you're looking at what you want to accomplish and you accomplish it on your own. You don't want to lean on someone else to get it done."
After Derek helped lead Clarke Central High School's football team to a Georgia state championship in 1985 (his teammates included future NFL stars Chuck Smith and John Kasay), a few of Vince's assistant coaches thought the Bulldogs should offer his son a scholarship.
"He was a possession receiver, who had to work hard for everything," Vince said. "I wasn't going to sign that type of athlete."
Vince wanted his son to attend Princeton, where he would receive an Ivy League education. Instead, Derek decided to attend Virginia. He walked on to the football team before earning a scholarship in his second season. Derek wasn't a star player, but helped lead the Cavaliers to three bowl games. In Derek's final college game, which he missed because of a strained hamstring, Tennessee beat Virginia 23-22 in the 1991 Sugar Bowl.
After graduating from Virginia, Derek attended law school at Georgia and later joined a law firm in Atlanta. He was earning a big paycheck and had a nice home in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Derek's wife, Allison, was still a medical student, so his family was relying on his paycheck.
But before long, Derek caught the coaching itch he'd tried to suppress for so long.
"He came and told me, and I started to argue with him," Vince said. "But they teach you how to argue in law school, and he was on the debate team. The argument lasted about 15 seconds."
At the age of 28, Derek walked away from a promising law career to become a graduate assistant on Jim Donnan's staff at Georgia in 1996. To eliminate a potential conflict of interest, he even coached for free.
After leaving Georgia, Derek Dooley coached wide receivers at SMU for two seasons before he was hired by Nick Saban at LSU in 2000. Dooley spent five seasons on Saban's LSU staff and coached tight ends, running backs and special teams. He also worked as Saban's recruiting coordinator at LSU, helping the Tigers sign many of the players who led them to the 2003 BCS national championship.
Dooley followed Saban to the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 2005, coaching the team's tight ends for two seasons. But when Saban was ready to leave for Alabama after the 2006 season, Dooley decided it was time to get a program of his own. He was hired at Louisiana Tech, which had only one winning campaign in the previous five seasons.
Louisiana Tech went 5-7 in Dooley's first season. The next season, the Bulldogs went 8-5 and won their first bowl game in 31 years, beating Northern Illinois 17-10 in the 2008 Independence Bowl. This past season, the Bulldogs finished 4-8, losing five of their last six games.
After his team struggled mightily this past season, Dooley wasn't sure he'd be in position to get a job like Tennessee.
"All I wanted was a chance to get in front of them," Dooley said.
When Dooley interviewed with Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton in Atlanta on Thursday, he handed him a thick three-ring binder. Inside was the blueprint of Dooley's program. It included everything from a yearly calendar, staff expectations, training camp schedule, game-day operations and his recruiting philosophy.
"What's not in there?" Dooley joked.
While Dooley said his program mirrors much of what Saban used to win BCS national championships at LSU and Alabama, his program isn't exactly the same.
"It's very similar structurally, philosophically and organizationally," Dooley said. "But I'm a different personality from Nick. I've never tried to be Nick; not that there's anything bad with being Nick. But I have my own personality."
In the end, the Volunteers chose Dooley over Houston's Kevin Sumlin. Muschamp, Utah's Kyle Whittingham, Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Duke's David Cutcliffe also were contacted about filling the position.
Dooley said the struggles of trying to get Louisiana Tech turned around will help him at Tennessee. In addition to coaching the Bulldogs, he had served as Louisiana Tech's athletic director since March 2008.
"I can't tell you how much the last three years at Louisiana Tech have prepared me for this," Dooley said. "How I know is because the first two or three weeks at Louisiana Tech [in 2007] were so chaotic. No matter how much experience you have as an assistant coach, you're never going to be prepared for that moment when you become a head coach. But right now, I'm really calm."
Dooley's poise showed in his introductory news conference in Knoxville on Friday night. He talked about how he plans to embrace Tennessee's rich traditions: running through the "T," former coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer and Neyland Stadium's checkerboard end zones. It was exactly what Tennessee's jilted fans needed to hear, and it didn't hurt that they were hearing Dooley's words spoken with a distinct Southern accent.
"To me, that's what makes college football so great," Dooley said. "Every university has a unique culture. It's not the NFL. It's not cookie-cutter, where you don't have a heart and soul at every university. It's what I love. The history and culture and traditions are so much more than what I'll ever do here. That's why I'm so humbled and honored to have this job. The traditions are so important; it's a serious fabric of this university."
Dooley plans to embrace those traditions. But it might not be that easy for his father.
On Oct. 9, a Dooley will again be coaching at Georgia's Sanford Stadium. But Derek Dooley won't be coaching the Bulldogs.
"There's no hesitation about my wife wearing orange," Vince Dooley said. "I might subtly and very conservatively wear something orange."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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