Vols coaching mass exodus: recipe for disaster, or necessary change?

Two weeks ago, Tennessee Vols head football coach Derek Dooley officially became an embattled coach. Four of his assistants had left. Charlie Baggett, receivers coach, either retired, left to pursue other coaching opportunities, or was simply not retained, depending on the source of the information. Eric Russell, tight ends and special teams coach, left to join the staff of Mike Leach being assembled at Washington State. The earth-shaker was defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon leaving Knoxville in lateral moves to the University of Washington.

During Dooley’s meeting with the press two weeks ago Monday, he had this to say in response to the news that a fifth assistant coach  might be leaving (offensive line coach Harry Hiestand — it was later confirmed that Hiestand was off to Notre Dame in yet another lateral move by a Tennessee assistant):

“That’s kind of the nature of our industry… I’ve said all along that when people are wanting your coaches, despite what a lot of people think, we’re obviously doing something right. Like any coaching change, we use it as an opportunity to get better. And that’s what we’re going to do here because as much of the good things as those guys brought, there are always areas where we can improve.”

We had heard this line of reasoning from Dooley a long time ago. Of course, the phrase that stands out is “we’re obviously doing something right.” This simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Later, things were a bit more upbeat with the announcements that Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri was hired as the defensive coordinator and North Carolina’s Sam Pittman would be Hiestand’s replacement as the offensive line coach. Sunseri’s hiring created a lot of excitement on the heels of Bama’s national championship game victory. And, Pittman comes with credentials much-needed for a rebuilding program — ACC Recruiter of the Year, and named by ESPN.com as one of the top 25 recruiters in the nation for 2011.

But Sunday evening, news spread very quickly that Vols’ defensive line (formerly linebackers) coach Lance Thompson would be going back to from where he came — Nick Saban and Alabama. The pall that had been partially lifted with the entrance of Sunseri and Pittman was now back in full cover position over Knoxville and its vast extended family. To be fair to the situation, the exit of Thompson was expected by many after the well-traveled coach had been passed over for the defensive coordinator position. But fairness isn’t entertained very seriously in Knoxville when it comes to football. Six coaching exits are six coaching exits.

One take is to refute Dooley’s statement that “we’re obviously doing something right” as a statement of causation for six coaches to leave. The facts were there — little was done right in 2011. So, something had to change, and drastically.

Well, this is drastic. If Josh Ward’s math is correct, Tennessee will have only one position (defensive backs) with the same coach from 2011 to 2012. This is as close to cleaning house without firing the head coach as one can get. So perhaps that is what is needed to turn the ship toward an 8-win-or-better 2012 season.

And, if something had to drastically change, does it matter if that change came about as it has versus Dooley actively firing what he considered impediments to the success that will be demanded next season?

Regardless of the means, a virtually new coaching staff may prove to be just what the doctor ordered. An embattled coach doesn’t necessarily have to have the needed things done by direct means. He just needs to be successful. The chances of that success, with every passing coach, seem to diminish. There is no doubt that the tipping point has been reached — Derek Dooley finds himself in a win-now-or-else position with little perception that he has had the support of his lieutenants. But perhaps Dooley’s new staff, assembled by an unplanned necessity of survival, can be the difference that will prevent another coaching exit – the firing of the head coach.

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