The Dooley distraction

Dave Hart

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Derek Dooley believes he still has a shot to save his job. Almost everyone else in Big Orange Country believes he's a goner. Tennessee's players don't know what to believe.

That raises the question: Should athletics director Dave Hart end the speculation by clarifying the situation of the Vols' head football coach?

Well, the answer isn't as simple as it might seem. Former athletics director Mike Hamilton clarified Phillip Fulmer's situation — "It's been nice knowing you" — with three games left in the 2008 football season, and that proved to be a disaster. Fulmer's tearful resignation announcement cast a pall over Big Orange Country. Meanwhile, the Vols were so depressed that they went out that Saturday and tanked in a 13-7 loss to a Wyoming team so bad that it fired its head coach at season's end.

Hamilton struck again in March of 2011. Asked to clarify the situation of head basketball coach Bruce Pearl, the AD announced that it was not yet determined if Pearl would return for 2011-12. Coming from a guy who had given Pearl unconditional support previously, Hamilton's sudden back-track created doubts among Tennessee's players, who two days later mailed it in en route to a 30-point loss to Michigan in their NCAA Tournament opener.

Many fans blamed Hamilton for Fulmer's humiliating loss to Wyoming and Pearl's humiliating loss to Michigan. Likewise, many fans will blame Hart if he announces that Dooley won't be back in 2013, and the Vols lay an egg at Vanderbilt this Saturday night.

Basically, Tennessee's athletics director is in a no-win situation. If Hart says Dooley will be back, the coach's legion of critics will blow a fuse. If Hart says Dooley won't be back and Tennessee loses to Vandy, Hart will be the scapegoat. If Hart says nothing, though, he may keep a bad situation from getting even worse.

Tennessee's players seem to think so. They insist they feel no need for clarification.

"I don't think it would help us much," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "I don't think it's been a big focus of ours. We just focus on staying together, trying to get to a bowl game, accomplishing our goals. It doesn't distract us much, even though we know there are outside distractions."

No matter what happens in 2013, Derek Dooley is doing what he can to help the Volunteers end the regular season with two straight victories.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner agreed that Dooley's long-term future is secondary to Tennessee's short-term goal — posting a victory this Saturday night.

"I think the only thing that matters is that he's going to be here with us this week," Waggner said. "What we're trying to do this week is beat Vanderbilt, and I think he's going to put together a great gameplan, and that's the only thing we're worried about — beating Vanderbilt and winning these last two games to get to a bowl."

Junior guard Alex Bullard says Tennessee's players are too focused on what happens on the field to worry about behind-the-scenes matters. He also sees no need for Hart to clarify Dooley's situation.

"It wouldn't matter one way or another because we're not worried about that," Bullard said. "We're worried about one goal, and that's beating Vanderbilt. All of the negativity and distractions, we just stay away from that."

Like Waggner, Bullard is not concerned with whether or not Dooley will be Tennessee's coach in 2013.

"He's our coach when we go out and practice and he's going to be our coach when we play Vanderbilt and Kentucky," Bullard said. "That's what we have to focus on ... winning those games."

Sophomore offensive tackle Antonio Richardson says the Vols aren't focused on Dooley's status because he doesn't seem focused on it.

"I think he's handling it pretty well because he hasn't said anything to us about it," Richardson said. "It's just business as usual."

Junior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James thinks Dooley has shown poise as the controversy regarding his job security swirls all around him.

"He's handled it well," James said. "We have, too. We're all mature, and we just want to win, basically. We're just going to play for each other.

"It's not really a distraction. We've had negative stuff happen here before. I'm proud of my teammates and my coaches because we keep working, keep going out there and practicing like nothing's wrong."

Obviously, something is wrong. Tennessee stands 1-12 in its last 13 SEC games under a head coach who has lost the support of his fan base.

Would a clarification from Dave Hart fix what is wrong?

Probably not. Addressing a coach's future in-season can backfire. Ask Mike Hamilton.

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