Friday, January 15, 2010

Tennessee hires that one guy's kid

Most Tennessee fans couldn't have picked Derek Dooley out of a police lineup 24 hours ago, but they'll probably become familiar quickly:
Derek Dooley, the son of Georgia legend Vince Dooley, was introduced Friday as Tennessee's second new head coach in 14 months, replacing Lane Kiffin days after he bolted for Southern California.
I wasn't surprised at all that the Vols made Texas defensive coordinator (and coach-in-waiting) Will Muschamp their top priority after Kiffin left, and when Muschamp turned them down, I wasn't surprised that Duke coach (and former longtime Tennessee O-coordinator) David Cutcliffe was next on the list. But hiring Dooley was a surprise. Also surprising: Dooley being able to find a bright-orange tie that quickly. Impressive ...

If you'd never heard of Dooley before today, here's a brief summary: He's been an offensive position coach (wide receivers and/or tight ends) with SMU, LSU and the Miami Dolphins, and he was also Nick Saban's recruiting coordinator from 2000-02, when LSU finished with Rivals' top-ranked class twice in three years. He's young (41), he's smart (a law degree?!?), he's an excellent recruiter and he's worked under one of the best coaches in the sport. And if this reminds you of somebody, you're right: Dooley is basically a smarter, less douchey version of Lane Kiffin.

And that's not where the similarities end. Dooley went to Louisiana Tech in 2007 and took over for Jack Bicknell, who was fired after going a little under .500 (43-52) in eight years and reaching only one bowl game (a Humanitarian Bowl loss to Clemson in 2001). In three years, Dooley did the following:

2007: 5-7
2008: 8-5 (beat Northern Illinois in Independence Bowl)
2009: 3-9

If you're counting at home, that's a 17-20 record; he was 12-12 in WAC play. Tennessee fans probably gagged on their Jack Daniels when they heard about that on the teevee.

There's not much to point at and say, "Wow, that's impressive," but to argue that Louisiana Tech didn't improve during his tenure would be stupid. This year's 3-9 record was mostly the result of four losses by eight points or less, including a 24-16 loss to LSU in November. Louisiana Tech was also the only team in the WAC to come within 10 points (45-35) of Boise State. Compare that with the 2007 team, which was coming off a 3-10 season and lost to LSU by 48 (yikes), Nevada by 39, Cal by 30, Mississippi by 24 ... you get the idea. Competing is the first step toward winning.

I watched the Louisiana Tech-LSU game and saw two teams that didn't belong on the same field talent-wise, and there were only two reasons that game was close:

1. Jarrett Lee is a pretty terrible quarterback, which hurt LSU's offense all year.
2. Dooley's creative (and aggressive) play-calling got Louisiana Tech a fucking brilliant touchdown just before the half to take the lead, and his unwavering optimism/confidence clearly rubbed off on his players.

This postgame quote pretty well summarizes my thoughts:
"We ran ball as well as you can run it against them," Tech coach Derek Dooley said. "We went toe-to-toe and we weren't affected by the environment. We weren't playing in awe of LSU, and I think those are great steps. At the end of the day, they have a better football team than we have."
So Tennessee fans should feel pretty good, right? Ummm ... maybe. Bringing in high-end recruits and inspiring confidence in your players are definitely things you want from your head coach, but what you need from your head coach are wins, and the fact of the matter is that his career record is 17-20. It remains to be seen whether that says more about Dooley or the difficulty of doing any better than .500 at Louisiana Tech.

There are two quarterbacks in the NFL right now with the last name of Manning. Both have every skill necessary to be elite and bloodlines that provided a head start money can't buy. Peyton turned those advantages into awesomeness, becoming one of the greatest QBs in NFL history. Eli is an average starter, which is fine but probably not what the Giants were hoping for at $16.5 million a year. Dooley reminds me of one of the Mannings ... I'm just not sure yet which one.

Dooley is the top-five draft pick with "upside" (Jay Bilas' favorite word), a guy who hasn't shown much in terms of results but might be unbelievable in the right situation. Tennessee is obviously banking on being the right situation.

Would I have hired him over Muschamp? No (not that Tennessee ever had a choice, but it's a point of comparison). Would I have hired him over Cutcliffe? Probably. Cutcliffe would have been the safe pick, the guy who's been around and knows the program and probably would have been able to stabilize things and do a fine job. Dooley is the upside pick, a riskier hire but one that might look brilliant five years from now. And since neither of the aforementioned guys were interested, Tennessee's choices were limited anyway.

But comments like this ...
We thought the Chisik hire at Auburn was bad, this is ten times worse!! A losing record in the WAC conference, are you kidding me?
... are moronic (which I guess is appropriate for any conversation in SEC country). It's funny that the comparison is Gene Chizik, who was hired last offseason from Iowa State with a 5-19 record and promptly led Auburn to an 8-5 season with the help of crazy-but-brilliant offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. I could easily see Dooley getting off to a similar start, especially when you look at Tech's impressive rushing numbers and realize that he'll have guys like Bryce Brown and David Oku at his disposal next year.

If I had to bet one way or the other on Dooley -- either boom or bust -- I'd go with boom (a firecracker boom, not a nuclear one). He can recruit, he's smart and he's been trained by the best, and those things will be a lot more relevant at Tennessee than at a talent-deprived mediocrity like Louisiana Tech. It's not easy to win in the SEC against Florida, Georgia, Alabama and LSU, but everything's relative; in the world of college football, Knoxville is the freakin' Taj Mahal compared with Ruston, Louisiana (wherever that is).

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