Commentary

New Vols era set after whirlwind ride

Originally Published: January 16, 2010
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- One of the first things we learned about Derek Dooley during his introductory news conference Friday night was that he's not a sound-bite guy.

That's refreshing, because the previous guy Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton hired was a walking, living, breathing sound bite.

Lane Kiffin
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin's abrupt departure for USC left Tennessee scrambling for a new coach.

If he wasn't taking shots at a rival coach, disparaging an entire community (Pahokee, Fla.) or simply doing what Lil Wayne rapped about and talking trash, then Lane Kiffin was cavalierly racking up secondary violations and then skipping town 14 months later, but not before his recruiting coordinator, Ed Orgeron, apparently tried to steal away recruits to go with them to USC.

Let's face it: For all Kiffin's talk about leaving Tennessee in better shape than he found it, the reality is that he absolutely napalmed the place.

At last count, he had one more win at Tennessee than he did secondary violations, and he left behind an NCAA cloud that's still hovering.

Rumor is that Tennessee compliance director Brad Bertani threw a party when the news broke Tuesday night that Kiffin was leaving.

The sad thing is that Hamilton stood around and let all this happen. Because he had so much riding on Kiffin being a success, Hamilton was never able to effectively manage Kiffin.

That's not to say Hamilton's not a good man, because he is. He's also done a lot of good things on his watch for the athletic program. See Bruce Pearl and some of the facility improvements, namely the renovations to Neyland Stadium.

But he fumbled on the 1-yard line when it comes to these past 14 months.

The Tennessee people are a proud bunch. They take their football seriously, and they desperately wanted to believe that Kiffin's roguish behavior would somehow help get them back to the top of the SEC mountain.

What it got them was the kind of pickle no football program wants to be in -- searching for a coach three weeks before signing day.

Hamilton was so snowed he didn't see it coming. But then, he is the guy that hired Kiffin.

If Tennessee fans are looking for somebody to blame in this whole mess, blame the guy who spent so much time looking for somebody that was the antithesis of Phillip Fulmer that he forgot what was really important was finding the best fit for Tennessee.

Mike Hamilton
AP Photo/Lisa Norman-HudsonTennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton picked Derek Dooley to replace Lane Kiffin.

Maybe Hamilton got it right this time. Only time will tell. Dooley was certainly impressive during his news conference.

It's probably fitting that one of the greatest and most inspirational players to ever play for Tennessee seemed to have the best feel for what the Vols needed earlier this week, as Hamilton flew around the country desperately trying to fix his mistake.

Al Wilson was the heartbeat of Tennessee's 1998 national championship team, and one of the finest football players who's ever worn the orange.

He also dearly loves his school.

So as different names kept floating around out there, and others either turned down the Vols' overtures or simply withdrew their names from consideration, my phone rang the day everything was heating up with current Duke coach and former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

It was Wilson, and he wasn't necessarily endorsing Cutcliffe. Wilson likes Cutcliffe and certainly respects him as a man and as a coach.

But what Wilson was endorsing was that Tennessee get the "right" coach.

"The whole thing with Kiffin should be a teaching lesson for us all," said Wilson, who's now retired after playing 10 seasons in the NFL and living in Atlanta.

"It's not about going out there and getting the best-known coach, the top-rated coach or the coach everybody's talking about. It's about getting the coach who's the best fit for Tennessee, the coach who understands Tennessee and understands what the Tennessee family is about.

"But the most important thing is getting a coach who has a real passion to go out and sell Tennessee like it's his school."

Keep in mind that Wilson wasn't saying that it had to be somebody with Tennessee ties. He also wasn't lobbying to bring his old coach, Fulmer, back.

Rather, he meant go get a coach who wants to be in Knoxville, wants to be there long-term and genuinely respects and embraces what Tennessee's about.

The last guy never embraced anything about Tennessee. That is, with the exception of it being a place he could try to transform into "USC East," as he used to tell players and recruits.

What Tennessee fans want to know: Did Hamilton get the right guy this time?

Dooley said all the right things at his news conference. But winning the news conference doesn't always translate into winning games.

He inherits a program that has certainly seen better days. There's no denying the decline in Fulmer's latter years. Two of his final four seasons produced losing records, which is why he didn't survive.

Derek Dooley
AP Photo/Lisa Norman-HudsonTennessee introduced new coach Derek Dooley on Friday night.

Kiffin finished 7-6 in his only season, and to his credit the Vols were more competitive against their chief rivals and played some quality football in stretches. But his mad dash to the West Coast really puts Tennessee behind the eight ball in terms of saving this recruiting class, and possibly even the next one, when you consider how early schools are getting on players these days.

As we've seen, one bad recruiting class can set a program back two or three years. Two bad classes in a row might as well be a death sentence in the SEC.

Dooley, a Nick Saban disciple, knows how to recruit. But he's also going to be facing a stigma of sorts with Tennessee fans and recruits.

Fairly or unfairly, he's going to be perceived as the Vols' fourth or fifth choice. Hamilton insists Dooley is the only coach he offered the job to. But the way the game works is that no athletic director "offers" the job to somebody that turns it down.

What we all can agree on is that Dooley clearly wasn't the first guy Tennessee pursued. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was the primary target, and he turned down a lucrative opportunity to be the Vols' coach.

Soon after Muschamp passed, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun pulled his name out of consideration.

There were serious talks with Cutcliffe, so much so that former Tennessee star quarterback Peyton Manning (and close Cutcliffe confidant) thought -- and at one point was led to believe -- that Cutcliffe was going to get the job.

Something tells me Hamilton won't be on Manning's Christmas card list this year.

Tennessee officials flew out to Salt Lake City on Thursday night to meet with Utah's Kyle Whittingham. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Whittingham turned down the Tennessee job Friday morning.

The Vols also talked to Temple's Al Golden and Houston's Kevin Sumlin.

It was a whirlwind ride, for sure. But here the Vols are, about to embark on another coaching era in Tennessee football history.

Dooley will be judged on how many games he wins, whom he wins them against and whether or not he competes for and wins SEC championships.

That's never going to change. To make it at Tennessee, you have to beat Alabama, Florida and Georgia more than they beat you. We'll find out in due time if Dooley is up to that challenge and, probably more importantly, if he's committed to that challenge -- long-term.

If not, the next position open at Tennessee may well be the athletic director's job.

Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espnclow@aol.com.

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