Jan. 18, 2010
BY JOSH PATE, UTSports.com
Derek Dooley sat in his Miami office and faced a decision with nothing but cloudy outcomes. He had no crystal ball, but he did have options. His boss and mentor for seven years was about to announce his resignation as head coach of the Dolphins just before boarding a plane to Tuscaloosa, and Dooley, an assistant with the NFL franchise at the time, probably could've gone with him.
But paving his road in Assistant Coach Land for another era with another Southeastern Conference power wasn't exactly what Dooley was searching for. So for the first time since landing in Nick Saban's nest, the bird flew out on his own.
Dooley, who had been an assistant with various titles and responsibilities under Saban at LSU and again with the Dolphins, chose not to follow his mentor when Saban took the Alabama head coaching job with the task of re-establishing the Crimson Tide's national relevance. Instead, he went to Louisiana Tech as head coach.
A year later, he added athletic director to his title.
Three years later, Saban is hoisting a BCS national championship, and Dooley is taking a job as one of Saban's biggest rivals, accepting the position of head coach at Tennessee. Could he have earned the same having followed Saban to Alabama and working three more years under his mentor? Sure. Would he have been as prepared? No way.
"It was very fulfilling what I was doing at Tech," Dooley said. "It's very rewarding to be able to drive the entire department. So there was not one time I looked back and said I wish I didn't. Even though I wasn't in that (national championship) game, the hundred things or thousand things I had done the last three years to prepare me for this job that someone in that game couldn't have prepared for, it's going to pay dividends."
Vols fans certainly hope so. A roller-coaster week that saw former head coach Lane Kiffin resign and a replacement search filled with rumors ended with Dooley standing at the podium with a crisp suit and shiny orange tie talking about integrity, tradition and respect for the SEC.
A WAC coach preaching on the SEC? You better believe it. That's because Dooley was raised on SEC football. His father is legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who led the Bulldogs for 25 years. His biggest coaching mentor has been Saban, who has now won a national championship with two SEC schools in the same decade (he won the 2003 title while coaching at LSU).
"I have great respect for the people he worked with and knew that he's been trained well to be prepared for this moment," said Mike Hamilton, Tennessee's athletic director.
So when Tennessee introduced its 22nd head football coach inside the Peyton Manning Locker Room Complex on Friday night, the irony was that the conversation routinely veered back to a Georgia legend and an Alabama coach.
"It starts with my father, for so many reasons growing up: forging a philosophy, forging a value set," Dooley said of the major influences in his life. "And of course, my last coach and mentor for whom I worked for seven years, and that's Nick Saban. I was with Coach Saban five years at LSU and two years with the Dolphins and really thrived in his way of doing things, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity that he gave me of wearing so many hats for him: coaching different positions, coordinating recruiting, coordinating special teams, assistant head coach. He really allowed me to blossom as a head coach, and I was starving for it."
That hunger was met when he left Saban's influence and took the job at Louisiana Tech.
"There was a part of me that said stay in the comfort zone, sit tight, and hopefully one day, as I had goals and aspirations to be a head coach, I could wait and it would come," Dooley said. "But that really isn't who I am, and I felt like I needed to develop more to be ready for when I got this opportunity. While I'm sure that had I stayed with Nick that I might have been a more popular candidate for this job now, I am certain that I'm a better and more qualified candidate by doing what I did the last three years."
Under Saban, he learned how to recruit. He learned the organizational strategy involved. Dooley recruited Texas. He recruited Georgia. He made contacts in Florida. They're all hotbeds of talent. But he worked in his own manner, fusing Saban's disciplined approach to coaching with his own Southern personality and gentleness.
Without Saban, he learned to manage his own program. He went 5-7 his first year at Louisiana Tech, then followed it with an 8-5 year in 2008 and an Independence Bowl victory while also serving as athletic director. This past season, his team was 4-8. It's a process, he said Friday.
"There are so many things as a head coach that you're never prepared for until you're a head coach," Dooley said. "I'm going to make some mistakes here. I'm probably going to say some things I shouldn't say. I'm probably going to do some things I shouldn't do. That comes with time and growth and maturity. But I know the three years and plenty of mistakes I made at Tech are going to pay off at Tennessee."
During that whole time, he's had his father close by. Vince Dooley, who has always been too nervous to watch or listen to his son's games, was excited about Derek's new gig.
"Natually, we're very, very happy, very proud of Derek. It's a wonderful opportunity," Vince Dooley said. "It's special because it's in the conference. Although I'd have to be candid and admit that in the conference I wish it was not a school that was so close and competitive to the school I've spent my last 40-something years. But nevertheless if I were to say that to Derek, he would remind me that I left Auburn and came right across the Chattahoochee to Georgia to start my career in the Southeastern Conference. Nevertheless, great opportunity at a wonderful school with great tradition, and we're all very excited about it."
So in a way, Derek Dooley is back at home. And the players welcome a coach who is experienced in the rich tradition that plays out in places like Knoxville, Athens and Tuscaloosa.
"I have a lot of confidence in somebody who knows what to expect in this conference," said running back Bryce Brown. "You can argue that it's the toughest conference in America, and a lot of people would say so. Knowing that somebody has grown up around the conference and can relate to it, knows how to go out there and recruit, they're not going to get caught off guard by something in this conference."
Added linebacker Nick Reviez about Dooley's SEC pedigree: "That's instant credibility. Where Nick Saban is and what he just accomplished and you talk of how he spent seven years with him, that's pretty cool. You can instantly say this guy knows what he's talking about."
It has to do with his background and the major influences in his life, all of whom are from the SEC.
"I grew up in the SEC and it didn't take me long as a youngster to realize that Tennessee was the essence of college football," Dooley said. "Even as a young kid when you watch the team run through the T and see the checkerboard end zones and of course when you hear Rocky Top, I have a vivid memory of Tennessee as a youngster."
Even if it's all thanks to coaches from Georgia and Alabama, it's music to the Vols' ears.
"Certainly, my father and Nick Saban had a tremendous influence in different things," Dooley said. "I've just been blessed to have been around so many people who forged my belief system."