HOOVER, Ala. — When the Tennessee football team gathered in January to meet its third head coach in three seasons, anxiety and uncertainty ran high.
Nobody understood that more than new coach Derek Dooley, the man hired to take over after Lane Kiffin abruptly resigned to take over at USC. So in his opening remarks to his new team, Dooley reached out to the players in the way they needed most — with compassion and empathy.
"When he came into the team meeting, he told us, 'I'm not going to ask you to trust me,' " Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz said. " 'You guys have been through a lot, and I know you're not going to trust me right off the bat. But over time, I hope you'll learn to trust me.' That showed me he understood what we were going through, and that's something I can appreciate because when some coaches first come in, they are just thinking I've got to get the team to do this for me. He came in and he was empathetic with what we had gone through, and he understood the emotions that we had. That was something that was really important to me."
For six months, Dooley has gone about doing what's important for the players while trying to restore a sense of tradition and normalcy to the program.
"It's certainly been a tough couple of years for our fans," Dooley said Friday. "This is a program since General (Bob) Neyland came on campus, the winningest program in college football (UT's 653 wins since 1926, Neyland's first season, are tied for first with Oklahoma). So this is a group of fans that are used to winning, and they're also used to stability. You look at the tenures and job that Coach (Johnny) Majors did, Coach (Phillip) Fulmer did. We have a fan base that likes stability and they like winning. We come in at that time where I thought it was very important to evaluate all of our structures, everything we did. And we've done that."
Dooley, 42, gave up a law career to enter coaching in 1996, a move he says stunned his family but eventually earned their support. His only head coaching experience was the past three years at Louisiana Tech, where he compiled a 17-20 record.
"Coach Dooley is an old soul," tight end Luke Stocker said. "He's a mature guy for his age. Everything about his pedigree speaks volumes to me."
The son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, he has worked under other big-name coaches such as Alabama's Nick Saban. He admits he has called on them all for help, especially his father, but ultimately the program will reflect his style.
"He understands the nature of this job," Dooley said of his father. "He understands how critical some decisions you have to make, especially early on, can impact this job. He understands the pressures of the job and the magnitude of it. He's been very supportive and he always will be, but not intrusive. He never will be. I would be a fool if I didn't reach out to him, someone who has had the success that he's had. Certainly I've done that, and I'll continue to do that. But at the end of the day, I'll continue to shape the program that fits my personality."
Dooley's tenure has already had adversity. On July 9, a group of UT players were involved in a bar brawl, and two were arrested. Dooley said he met with each individual involved before one of the players, sophomore safety Darren Myles Jr., was dismissed from the team.
"I didn't really act to try to send a message," he said. "I did what I thought was the responsible thing to do as the head football coach."
The Vols lost 11 starters from last season's 7-6 team and Friday were picked by SEC media to finish fifth in the East division.
"That's other people's projections of us, and that's fine, but we have our own expectations, and I guarantee you nobody in that locker room believes we'll finish fifth," Stocker said.
For his part, Dooley isn't overly concerned about preseason expectations. Instead, he's focused on building for what he hopes will be a long tenure.
"I'm proud of where we're headed," he said. "We head into the season with a lot of youth and a lot of inexperience at a lot of positions. But I feel really good about the young talent that we have on our team. I really feel good about the senior leadership that we have. So I'm excited as we get ready for training camp one week from now, looking forward to what the future's going to hold."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389.