When Derek Dooley charts a course for the rest of his professional life, he has the advantage of knowing he can succeed in something other than coaching football.
There are many coaches who can’t do anything but coach. But Dooley, fired this past weekend after three losing seasons at the University of Tennessee, could opt to return to the legal profession in which he was ensconced when the itch to become a coach was too relentless and gripping for him to ignore. He has the skills to succeed in business; broadcasting perhaps. A predecessor of his in Knoxville, Bill Battle, was fired by Tennessee and later founded a company called “Collegiate Licensing,” which he developed into a multi-million dollar sports marketing firm. Given his background, you would expect Dooley to land on his feet.
After telling his father, Vince — who experienced the ultimate spoils of coaching — of his plan to pursue the same profession, the practical side of a wizened parent suggested Derek should move slowly with respect to making the decision to become a coach. The father knew the trials and tribulations of the business, the whims of various administrators and the fickleness of the alumni constituency. He knew that in the world of coaching a good job is seldom recognized unless you win a certain amount of games.
There are many upsides in a coaching career. There can be big bucks, endless perks and limitless opportunity. But the profession lacks security, which can only be secured by one-upping yourself year after year. A starved alumni base swoons to that first team which overachieves and enjoys encouraging success. Then the program advances and gets in the hunt for a championship. Then you win one and the fan base expects that to become an annual exercise.
A coach cannot backslide. Every success must be topped.
Last weekend was an emotionally burdensome one for the Dooley household at 755 Milledge Circle in Athens. For a family which has enjoyed so many highlights, there was a helpless feeling as they watched the scene unfold in Knoxville. They know the vicissitudes of the coaching business. They know the impact the win-loss record has on a coach’s longevity, especially when it comes to finances. But when it is your child who is catching the slings and arrows, there is no consolation.
Even with the significance of television dollars today, administrators become uncommonly nervous when they see empty seats and drawers overflowing with unsold tickets. Change often brings about renewed hopes. Alumni spirits are regenerated with the new coaching faces on the sideline. They jump back in.
There is a new breed of athletic administrators in college athletics today, which is why Georgia partisans should appreciate Greg McGarity, who paid his dues when the call came to return to his alma mater. Many of today’s youthful athletic directors come out of sports marketing and administration. In all too many cases they have never “handled” a team. They have quick triggers and exercise a bean counting mentality, taking the view that what happened at Alabama can happen for them. When Alabama hired Nick Saban for $4 million dollars, the school pretty much got its money back in one year with marketing and ancillary income. There is only one Nick Saban.
Firing coaches when they have a downturn has become the order of the day. Patience may be a virtue, but it is unheard of when coaches’ records are being evaluated and scrutinized.
While I am not suggesting Tennessee did not act with due diligence, with time to get things in place — most seasoned coaches say it takes at least five years to develop a program — the younger Dooley would have given the school a solid performance and would have represented the institution with the kind of class and competence the University of Georgia experienced with his father. Those who know him consider Derek to be imbued with exceptional qualities, but few coaches are miracle workers.
When you inherit a depressed state of affairs, as Tennessee friends suggest was the case with Derek, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is nigh impossible. While I am no clairvoyant, I suspect that the next Tennessee coach will profit from what Derek Dooley established behind the scenes in three uneventful years in Knoxville.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.