Honesty. Accountability. Name recognition.
In his two years as coach, Derek Dooley has brought all of those things, which had been lacking to some degree, to the University of Tennessee football program. He has not, however, returned the Volunteers to a consistent place among the nation’s top 25 let alone the occasional appearance among the top 10.
Congratulations Tennessee, you have your very own Mike Shula.
The son of the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, Shula’s pedigree provided an immediate measure of dignity and clarity to the University of Alabama at a time when that program had lost its way. In short order, the Crimson Tide endured the failure and NCAA infractions of Mike DuBose, the disinterest of Dennis Franchione and — finally — the aborted attempt to go with Mike Price, who managed to have a pretty good time in just six months on the job.
Those things that initially made him so appealing, though, quickly lost their luster when the wins did not add up quickly enough.
Shula had one winning season — 10-2 and a Cotton Bowl victory in 2005 — in four years. Hamstrung by NCAA sanctions, he went just 4-9 in his first (2003) and managed to get to .500 (6-6) the next. A return to 6-6 in 2006 and suddenly even a Shula was not good enough.
Look at the numbers. Dooley is 11-14 and has yet to finish with a winning record (or even a .500 one) thus far at Tennessee. Shula was 10-13 over his first two campaigns.
Here is the problem for Tennessee: There is no Paul “Bear” Bryant in the past, which makes it that much more unlikely the Volunteers will end up with a Nick Saban whenever they eventually decide to cut ties with Dooley.
Robert Neyland brought the program to prominence at a time when college football was a regional sport with little, if any, national perspective and interest. Therefore, he never established the type of coast-to-coast renown that Bryant or Joe Paterno or Barry Switzer or Bo Schembechler did over the past half-century or so.
Phil Fulmer got Peyton Manning to play in Knoxville and he won a national championship in 1998, the year after Manning left.
His persona — and a key element to his success — was rooted in an everyman appeal rather than any sort of sporting royalty. Ultimately, the rumpled look and homespun delivery that worked so well for so long with so many recruits’ mothers worked against him when those he signed got into trouble off the field a little too often. In the eyes of too many, he appeared inept and out-of-touch with the growing demands of college coaching.
That’s when UT turned to Lane Kiffin, who was boorish and petulant and seemingly unfamiliar with the NCAA Manual from the get-go but promised to improve the talent level. Not only did Kiffin move on after one season, his top recruits, running back Bryce Brown and cornerback Janzen Jackson, played at Kansas State and McNeese State, respectively, last fall. (Neither was particularly spectacular, by the way).
So here is Tennessee on the verge of another national signing day with a team that last fall got pushed around by Alabama, LSU and Arkansas and made headlines for the way it celebrated a victory over Vanderbilt. These are not the salad days.
The man in charge is Dooley, the son of coaching legend Vince Dooley.
It was Shakespeare who told us, “That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Well, names mean something in college football — particularly in the SEC, where traditions are held so dear — but only for so long. Eventually, wins mean more.