KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For a guy who just endured a year-long white-knuckle ride, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley seemed remarkably composed Wednesday afternoon.
White shirt pressed, orange tie knotted, dark hair perfect, Dooley sank into a deep leather chair in his office and pronounced National Signing Day a success.
"This is probably the best I've felt in the 24 months since I got here about where we're headed," he said.
The reality is that the Volunteers must head in the direction of immediate improvement, or someone else might be sitting in that leather chair a year from now. The last thing Tennessee athletics needs is more tumult and turnover, but there is urgency in the Smoky Mountain air. A third consecutive losing season – something the football program has not endured since 1909-11 – could be a fireable offense.
Dooley knows that. He's not like that Italian cruise ship captain, blithely unaware that he's charting a course for trouble. He's a legendary coach's son with a law degree who understands his profession perfectly well.
He also knows that the players signed today are far less likely to decide his fate than the ones he has coached to an 11-14 record the past two seasons. But the nature of the job is to maximize the present while simultaneously building for the future, even if your future is by no means guaranteed.
And in a town like this, where the football obsession never stops, every day is a referendum on the state of the program. That's the nature of Dooley's high-risk, high-reward profession.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "You can't have 102,000 in Neyland Stadium and 35,000 at the Vol Walk cheering you on, then when things maybe aren't going so good, have those people say, 'Eh, that's OK.' "
It was 2 p.m. The fax machine had stopped spitting out National Letters of Intent a couple of hours earlier. As evidence of the mania that accompanies signing day – especially in the SEC – a whopping 53,070 unique viewers had logged onto Tennessee's "Faxcam" between 8 a.m. and noon to watch the papers roll in.
Dooley's third recruiting class with the Vols is rated No. 17 nationally. That's good – but there are five SEC schools ranked higher (Alabama, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU) and two more directly behind (South Carolina and Georgia). That's the reality check.
But by the time all the signatures were in, Dooley could understandably exhale. Piecing this class together was an arduous task, given everything swirling around the program.
"We were giving our competition a lot of ammunition," he said. "And we held on pretty good. … We were targeted pretty hard. Our guys were telling us what the other schools were saying."
And what were they saying?
"What would you say?" Dooley answered with a laugh. " 'The coach is getting fired. They aren't winning. The coaches are leaving.' "
Tennessee had to fight all those things, and more. During the spring and summer, when football recruiting intensifies, Tennessee's athletic director resigned under pressure and the program went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The NCAA damage to the football program turned out to be minimal, but opponents certainly didn't frame it that way with recruits.
As a result, the Vols were standing with one commitment in July.
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Then came the season. Expectations were muted, with good reason: a young, thin team faced a murderous schedule (Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina on successive weeks in midseason) with predictable results. But the deal-breaker with the fan base was a brutal loss to annual punching bag Kentucky.
Tennessee had beaten the Wildcats 26 consecutive seasons, but lost to a bad Kentucky team that started a wide receiver at quarterback. That defeat cost the Vols a bowl bid, left them 5-7 and soured the mood heading into the offseason.
The mood only turned worse when Dooley's staff was wracked with turnover. Six coaches left, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox – hailed as a savior when he arrived in 2009 from Boise State – who bolted for Washington. Dooley spent December hurriedly assembling a new staff while trying to hold together his recruiting class. During that time, his kicker Tweeted that Randy Shannon was going to replace Wilcox as the new defensive coordinator – which turned out to be completely false.
Dooley blamed that on "the national barber shop" that is social media, where the negative gossip and opinions piled up around Tennessee like snow drifts. He finally had a news conference in early January to try to calm the populace. When the Vols announced the news conference, Dooley's wife, Allison, immediately was peppered with texts asking if it was true that Derek was going to resign.
"You don't want to be in a defensive posture," Dooley said. "But it forces you to keep the message going. We went 37 days without saying anything [between the end of the season and the January news conference] and you would have thought it was three years.
"We used to get our drama fix in the afternoons for an hour or two [from soap operas]. Now if we don't have drama going on all the time, we can't stand it."
Dooley said he tries to avoid the social media vortex, but figured it must have been getting bad when friends kept coming up and asking, in concerned tones, "You hanging in there all right?"
"Yeah," he said. "I feel great."
Still, there was more drama to come. Shortly before signing day, two four-star linebackers who had committed to Tennessee dumped the Volunteers for other programs. In the national barber shop, Big Orange fans reached for the razor blades. Landing highly touted junior college wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson helped change the tenor Wednesday.
"I'm really excited," Dooley said. "For the first time, I think we've got enough quality football players, enough experience, enough depth, to go compete.
"I honestly didn't think that way the last two seasons. It doesn't mean we've arrived, or we're as good as everyone in the league. But we've given ourselves an opportunity to compete."
In a patient and rational world, Dooley would get a full four years to prove whether he's the right man to return Tennessee to prominence. After the spin cycle of Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin to Dooley – plus the turnover in athletic and academic administration – the smart thing would be to let the man establish some continuity. Another coaching change would deepen the sense of instability at a once-proud program.
But the SEC is never patient and rarely rational, and three years now often is considered plenty of time for a referendum on a coach. That's the world Derek Dooley lives in. He understands that.
Despite all that, he was going out with his staff and their families Wednesday to celebrate a signing class that might have little impact on this crucial 2012 season. The future, uncertain as it is, could wait for a night.
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- Derek Dooley