Regardless of where you stand on Derek Dooley’s future as Tennessee’s football coach, one thing all Volunteers fans can agree on is we simply want to start winning again.
But winning in the SEC is the hardest task in college football and there are few – if any – shortcuts a program can take to mask its weaknesses and be competitive in the nation’s toughest conference.
A few years of average recruiting, a bad coordinator hire or even a head coach who’s worn out his welcome can be the difference in two or three wins in any given SEC season.
Tennessee had been on a downward trend for the past decade or so. Who would’ve thought after winning the national championship in 1998 that the Vols wouldn’t win another conference title for at least the next 14 years?
Since raising that crystal ball on Jan. 4, 1999, Tennessee has as many losing seasons (four) as 10-win campaigns.
Vols fans can argue all day and night as to when and why this fall from elite status occurred, and quite frankly, there’s no one moment to pinpoint as the downfall. Sure the 2001 SEC title game is the last time Tennessee was in a game competing on a national scale, but the slide from the top-five program of the mid-to-late 90s to the middle of the pack SEC program Tennessee is now was a cumulative effect.
The biggest reason why things began spiraling downward is Tennessee’s lack of leadership, and not just in the athletic department.
Joe Johnson was the university’s President from 1991-99, during the Vols greatest decade in football in the modern era. Johnson, not being naïve and understanding what UT is at its core, referred to athletics, and specifically the football program, as the “front porch” of the university.
Johnson knew the football program, good or bad, was the face of the university and he made it a point to give the football program every opportunity to compete at the highest level.
The same can be said about Doug Dickey, who was the athletic director from 1985-2002. Many older Vols fans might hate the man because of how he left Tennessee to coach Florida after the 1969 season, but Dickey never let the football program become nationally irrelevant under his watch. He might not have cared about the other sports programs on the Hill, but Dickey knew the football team was the lifeblood of the athletic department.
The departures of Johnson and Dickey took away two influential leaders at the university.
Unfortunately, Tennessee couldn’t adequately replace them.
Since Johnson left, the university has had six presidents and only one of them has served more than two years.
After Dickey retired, Mike Hamilton became the athletic director. For all the good Hamilton did in fundraising, he was a horrible leader. He was just too nice of a guy to be that cut-throat, tell-you-want-you-don’t-want-hear athletic director that schools in the SEC needs.
It appears Dave Hart is that guy, at least to an extent.
One could argue that Phillip Fulmer wouldn’t have gotten so complacent in the early 2000s had Johnson, and especially Dickey, still been looking over his shoulder. Instead, there was Hamilton and a revolving door of presidents, and none of them had enough clout to tell a true VFL and national title-winning coach that his once proud program was falling into mediocrity.
So here Tennessee sits today after a decade of not being able to compete with the Floridas and Alabamas of the SEC. It sucks. There’s no other way to put it.
The problem Tennessee is facing today still deals with leadership. In fact, it may be too much leadership from outside the athletic department.
Current UTK Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Provost Susan Martin are very much academic types. They don’t mind if the the football program wins, but they sure won’t bend over backwards for it like Johnson did.
Cheek wants to have some input within the athletic department. This is causing a power struggle with Hart. Cheek’s top 25 initiative is a complete joke, even to some of the other academics on campus, and UT isn’t anywhere near achieving his goal.
Martin oversees UT’s admissions. It’s no coincidence every signee in Tennessee’s recent recruiting classes was admitted into school. The football coaches can only recruit low-risk academic players because there’s very little wiggle room to get athletics into school. Hart and others had to bend over backwards to get Omari Phillips into school, and as UT’s luck has been recently, he’ll be heading back to Florida in December and not coming back.
Screw this top 25 crap, Chancellor. Where’s our top 15 football program? That’s what fans want back. Not some stupid academic rating.
Hiring a top-notch football coach like a Jon Gruden would correct many of Tennessee’s current football problems, but the issues of leadership within the university and athletic department wouldn’t be fixed by just one athletic hire.
It’s a university-wide problem. The football program has just become the exploited “front porch” example of it.