In the college football world these days, everyone wants to be Alabama—or at least be like them. As frustrating as it is for Vol fans, it’s hard to deny that Alabama is the bellwether. Seemingly, the decision makers at UT have done their best to try to emulate the Tide. If you’ve been a fan of the program the last few years, you don’t need much of a history lesson here: UT hired Derek Dooley who was a Nick Saban disciple. They hired Dave Hart who is an Athletic Director with Bama ties. The same goes for the defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and some of the football assistants. Even after all of that, it’s time for Tennessee to take it a step further if they really want to be like Alabama and restore the program to its traditional place among college football’s elite.
Ask any college football fan, and they’ll probably admit that a lot of aspects of college football are cyclical. The peaks and valleys of the up years and down years form a pattern that’s similar among a lot of programs, but the parallelism between Tennessee’s situation and that of Alabama a few years ago is striking. To begin, let’s look back to the 1990’s.
Alabama was king of the college football world in 1992 after they beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to claim what they count as their 12th National Title. A few years later, Coach Gene Stallings retired after finishing the 1993-96 seasons 39-10-1. Alabama didn’t win any SEC titles during that stretch, but they were still averaging almost 10 wins a year for four years coming off of a National Championship. [Editor’s note: Alabama cheats all the time and the NCAA has to put them on probation quite frequently. If you look at the record books, there are some years where the NCAA will tell you that Bama won very, very few games. For the purposes of this article, I will be citing their on-field results rather than the official records]. A few years after Alabama won it all in 1992, Tennessee won a title in 1998. Under the direction of Phil Fulmer, UT put together a six year run that is very comparable to the four year one that the Tide enjoyed after their national championship. Tennessee averaged over 9 wins per season from 1999-2004. Like with Alabama’s four year stretch following their championship, Tennessee also failed to win an SEC crown during their period of continued success.
So what? Two teams followed up a National Championship with a multiple season run that averaged over 9 wins per season. Big deal, right? Well, stick with me. In 1997, Mike DuBose made his coaching debut for the Tide and promptly went 4-7. He followed that up with 7-5, 10-3 (SEC Title), and 3-8 campaigns. For the purposes of my parallel here, the DuBose years at Alabama align with the twilight of Fulmer’s career from 2005-2008 where the Vols went 5-6, 9-4, 10-4 (SEC East Title), and 5-7. The obvious difference here is that Alabama has an SEC Title that they backed into in 1999. UT had their chance in 2007 but lost to eventual National Champion LSU. Basically, Alabama has an SEC title for their Shaun Alexander years, and Tennessee doesn’t for its Arian Foster years. But otherwise the programs were in very similar situations when the DuBose and Fulmer eras came to an end when it comes to on-the-field results. DuBose had some off-the-field issues that made his firing a bit easier compared to the equity that Fulmer had built over the years and the general admiration bestowed upon him by the fan base, but the fact is that Fulmer had basically turned into Mike DuBose when simply examining their records. Both men were deservedly let go after four year stretches that disappointed their respective fan bases.
Next for Alabama came the Dennis Franchione years. “Coach Fran” had some early success at Bama to the tune of 7 win and 10 win seasons. Remember when I mentioned Bama’s cheating earlier? Their 10 win season in 2002 would’ve qualified them for the SEC Championship game if the program was eligible. Alabama fans loved Franchione. The University offered him a 10 year extension. They couldn’t wait to see what the future held with him. Then he left. Worried about the sanctions hanging over the program and seeing an opportunity elsewhere, he bolted for Texas A&M. After Fulmer had basically turned into Mike DuBose, Tennessee brought in Lane Kiffin in 2009 to try to get the program back on track after a disappointing four year stretch. Though he was only at the helm for one season, Kiffin restored some hope for Vol fans. His brash demeanor off the field was controversial at times, but the fan base was excited about the future. Kiffin was recruiting at a torrid pace and many felt like it was only a matter of time before Tennessee would be contending for SEC Titles. In January after his first season, he did his best Dennis Franchione impression and left town. Their individual circumstances were different, but the fact of the matter is that both Franchione and Kiffin left their respective programs on their own free will. And they left their schools searching for the right man to hire.
Alabama turned to Mike Price. The similarities have to end here, right? After all, Tennessee hasn’t hired a coach that got fired for blowing (pun intended) a bunch of University funds on a stripper from Pensacola named Destiny before he ever got to coach his first game, right? That’s correct, but when Alabama had to go through their second coaching search in a matter of 6 months, the timing was terrible. Who would they find to come and lead their program in May at a time when the coaching carousel is stagnant? They didn’t have many choices, and they settled for Mike Shula. Shula was a long-time NFL assistant who was probably more famous because of his last name than his coaching acumen, but at the time, it was the best that Alabama could do. Feels like 2010 all of a sudden. That year was the year when Derek Dooley was named as head coach of the Vols. Both he and Shula are the sons of legends and both had earned notoriety because of their family trees. Both coaches were hired under difficult circumstances—especially in regards to the timing of their hires. Both of them disappointed their fan bases. The similarities aren’t perfect. Shula had Alabama ties after having played QB there but lacked the head coaching experience that Dooley had. Shula had more success at Bama than Dooley has had at Tennessee including a 10 win season for the Tide in 2005. But the bottom line is that after he failed to beat Auburn for a fourth straight season in 2006, the Alabama program expected more. They demanded something better, and in 2007, their wishes were granted when they hired Nick Saban to replace Shula. Within a couple of years, Alabama’s journey through mediocrity had officially come to an end when they won their first of two National Titles under Saban. Only time will tell if Tennessee continues the parallel going forward and makes a big name hire to try and rescue the program or if the school waits it out with Dooley and gives him more time to try to build a program.
The debate about Derek Dooley and his future at Tennessee centers on a debate between emotion and logic.
If Tennessee’s fan base could build a coach like you can do with fictitious players on video games, many of them would create Derek Dooley. He’s a clean cut southern boy who Tennessee fans can relate to because he says words like “britches” in his familiar southern drawl. The fans know his father and can relate to Dooley’s southern family. They smile when they see Dooley being smug with the media and know that he’s an intelligent man and one who cares immensely about Tennessee. All of the fans want the program to succeed and many want Dooley to be the man to do it because he “fits the mold” so well. Some fans want someone like Dooley to be the face of the Tennessee program so badly that they are able to marginalize his on-the-field failures because of who he is off the field. They make excuses about the program he inherited, the bad luck that has been waiting at every turn, the depth issues, etc. These same fans are the ones who wanted to give Buzz Peterson more time for the same reasons they do Dooley. They didn’t learn their lesson the first time. They won’t let logic get in the way of their emotions.
Following the Tennessee program as closely as many of us do, the memories we have of Derek Dooley’s tenure in Knoxville leave us scarred enough to where most shouldn’t have to check the record books to know the stats. They’re ugly, damning, and downright pathetic: 0-13 against ranked opponents, 4-16 in the SEC, no SEC wins outside of Vandy twice, Kentucky, and Ole Miss. The fans whose minds appeal more to the logic side of the argument than the emotional one outlined above have had enough. They are sick of losing and tired of excuses. When you look at the on-the-field results alone, Tennessee isn’t on its way to becoming a program like Kentucky or Vanderbilt. It’s already there. The fans who don’t let their emotions get in the way of logic are ready for and beginning to demand a change.
My argument appeals to those who favor logic: The last few seasons have seemed like a bad dream for many of us, and it’s time to wake up. Tennessee needs someone who brings instant credibility to the program, someone who recruits want to play for, someone who can handle the pressure of the SEC, someone who would make the college football world stop and take notice, and most importantly someone who is actually capable of winning games while leading the program. When they find him, they need to pay him whatever it takes, just like Alabama did with Saban.
It’s time for Tennessee to continue the Alabama parallel. It’s time to hope that Dave Hart learned from his time at Alabama about all the good that can come from ponying up the money to hire the right man for the job. Some say it’s impossible or unrealistic to expect Tennessee to be able to make a splash hire, but Dave Hart along with the boosters and power brokers know that their decisions will shape Tennessee’s future. An investment in a new staff, even if it’s a large one that is made while Tennessee is paying buyouts to its current staff, can start paying dividends immediately if the right man is hired. Let’s all hope those with money, power, and influence realize that it’s time to make a change and that Tennessee simply cannot afford to go cheap when that change is made.
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