GAINESVILLE — Derek Dooley took over Tennessee football in January fully aware of the daunting task he faced in trying to rebuild the storied program.
He is Tennessee's third head coach in three seasons. He was hired after one of the most controversial coaches in the nation, Lane Kiffin, jumped ship after one season. The Vols were 36-27 in the previous five seasons.
With the fan base still divided over the dismissal of longtime coach Phillip Fulmer and reeling from the tumultuous year with Kiffin, Dooley has spent the past nine months trying to galvanize the fans yet prepare them for the tough road ahead.
"I think Derek's doing a good job; he's doing what he has to do … " said Fulmer, now a studio analyst with CBS. "I mean, you're looking at a potentially long-term problem, certainly with all the transition that the program has been through in the last couple of years from me to Kiffin. A good number of players have left the program.
"I think as a general attitude, I know my last few years if you talked about only winning nine, it was an act of terror. And now they are pushing and hoping to win six to get into a bowl game some way. So he's got a lot of challenges around him, internal and otherwise. People need to give him time and need to support him."
Now two games into Dooley's first season, Tennessee is 1-1 and coming off a 48-13 loss to Oregon on Saturday at home. As the Vols prepare to host Florida on Saturday in the SEC opener for both, Dooley said this week that he's starting to recognize more and more that turning things around will be as much about changing a mind-set and culture as it is finding the most talented players.
"I think it's a little bit of a sociological issue," he said. "I think more than ever before we are in such a results-oriented world that children are groomed from the beginning about winning and losing and not competing. I think it's something that they all want success and they all want this personal gratification, and they lose sight of what it takes to get that. … I think it's a generational thing, and it's important that we teach them the importance of process and that you get your satisfaction from the investment you put into something."
Dooley, 42, spent the previous three years at his only head coaching job, Louisiana Tech, where he compiled a 17-20 record.
But the son of former longtime Georgia coach Vince Dooley spent his formative coaching years with some of the game's best, including his father and Alabama's Nick Saban, yet he insists he's different.
"I just model myself after who I am," he said. "I don't really look at other coaches and say that's who I want to be like. I wasn't trying to be like our predecessor."
Those who know him well have no doubt he can make things right in Knoxville. With time.
"Derek's a fine young coach," Saban said. "He was on our staff for seven years (LSU and Miami Dolphins). He did a wonderful job. He's a very good recruiter, very personable. He's probably one of the most organized guys that we've ever had on our staff. He made an outstanding contribution in every way, and he understands the big picture.
"You're talking about someone who's been around football all his life. … His mother, Barbara, tells stories about Derek watching film when he was 5 years old. So I think sometimes that kind of experience helps you see the big picture. I think he's going to do an outstanding job. I just hope the people are positive and supportive. They need to know that's a big part of being successful."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Check her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.