Rebuilding and Recovery In Knoxville
The public response to the Vols’ loss in Starkville last Saturday at Mississippi State was swift. It was also predictable since that game, before kickoff, was christened a crucial game in the career of head coach Derek Dooley.
I’ve stayed out of the Dooley-Must-Go vs. Dooley-Must-Stay debate, because I think it premature for a number of reasons. Highly entertaining, but premature.
This week, I’ve had the opportunity to take some long drives (for work) accompanied by broadcasts of various talk shows on the two major sports radio stations in Knoxville. A lot of hysteria. Some reasoned discussion. Mostly food for further consideration.
It all made me think about the time that the Tennessee Volunteer football program underwent a full-fledged rebuilding program, how the dark days of the last 2+ years are part of a genuine rebuilding phase requiring more than simply a ‘reloading’ effort, and most importantly how hiring even the best coach in the land to stem the tide of decline is not a sure recipe for a quick recovery.
Remember how you used to listen to your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents talk about what it was like to live through the Great Depresssion? I do. When I was young, it was easy to dismiss all of it as “old-folk talk”.
But those “old folks” seemed to have an appreciation for the good times, having lived through the bad times. They had the long-term view of the cycles of life. They had no sense of entitlement. And, they seemed to retain their energetic view of life.
I dare say that the vast majority of those that I have read or listened to their opinions during this past week began their Vol fandom sometime in the 1990s, or perhaps the late 1980s at the earliest.
That puts me, and some of you that I know, squarely in the “old folks” category. Our fandom began as kids in the mid to late 1960s or early 1970s. We suffered through the Vol Great Depression of the mid-1970s and the very long road to recovery of the late 1970s-early 1980s.
We have experienced significant decline, slow recovery, and the pinnacle of greatness that followed.
Those that I have listened to this week have experienced only that greatness followed by the decline of the last half decade. In my eyes, these good people tend to harbor feelings of desparation, anger, and apathy, mainly because their relatively short timeline has justified feelings of entitlement.
They do not know through experience that Phillip Fulmer inherited the fruits of a long rebuilding effort led by Johnny Majors. Those fruits were a time of cushy success for many of today’s fans — a time when simply putting on an orange jersey usually led to success. But eventually, all good things come to an end. Fulmer’s mistakes led to a significant decline in the fortunes of the Vols from which we have not recovered. Could Fulmer have righted the ship if not fired in 2008? Debatable.
It is somewhat similar in history to how in 1970 Bill Battle inherited the fruits of the rebuilding effort engineered by Doug Dickey (1964-69). Dickey’s rebuilding took less time than did Majors’, arguably because the situation in 1964 was far different than that of 1977. What was rebuilt in 5 years by Dickey was just as quickly destroyed under the helm of Battle. The road back to glory from the dark days of 1975-77 was a very bumpy one.
Where Derek Dooley falls in these cycles has yet to be determined. And that is of course the source of the present anxiety that is rampant throughout the Vol Nation.
Is Dooley on the precipice of a recovery a la Dickey, or more plausibly a rebuilding via Majors? Or is he just the continuation of the downward trend that can be drawn on the graph above beginning in the late 1990s/early 2000s of the Fulmer era?
On the eve of this Third Saturday in October, Dooley is in his third season, one of great promise unfulfilled so far. He has an overall record of 11-14. When Majors in 1979 entered his third Third Saturday in October, he carried a similar record, 13-13-1.
The teams that Dooley’s Vols have defeated have been well chronicled. They are victories over the poor strata of college football, and the only conference foes defeated are named Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt (a 4-15 conference record). Majors’ victories by mid-1979 were mainly over similarly poor teams, with the lone exception being Auburn in 1979 who ended that season with an 8-3 tally. Johnny’s conference mark right before the 1979 Alabama game was an unimpressive 5-9, with wins over only the dreadful Vandy (twice), Kentucky, and Ole Miss in addition to the aformentioned victory over Auburn.
Majors’ Vols lost to Alabama in 1979, and all sensible projections show a similar fate for Dooley’s Vols on Saturday.
What Majors was able to do two weeks following that loss to Alabama was to whip a decent (7-4) Notre Dame team, 40-18 in Neyland Stadium. It was that game that re-juiced the apathetic Vol Nation that was on suicide watch following the previous week’s loss to lowly Rutgers during Homecoming Week, one of the worst losses in the last 50 years.
But that brief respite was followed by other deeply disappointing performances on the way to the SEC Championship a long six years later.
The story ended with the knowledge that Majors was indeed the right man for the job: three SEC championships followed the long rebuilding. But going into the game with Alabama in his third season, we didn’t know it. There was a large dose of doubt because the quick recovery most expected had turned into a mirage. We knew he was a ‘proven commodity’ — he had led Pitt to the national championship in 1976 before coming back home to Knoxville. In fact, Tennessee hired the top head coach in the land in December 1976. That was the last thread of hope that Vol fans had to hang onto through that long rebuilding process.
And it was the reason for the longer rope granted to Coach Majors that prevented him from being run out of town during those early years of utter frustration.
Today, many Tennessee fans harbor the opinion that Dooley was the wrong man for the rebuilding job. Part of this opinion stems from the misinterpretation of the situation as one requiring only a reloading event, not a rebuilding project. The fan base became used to the one-year reloading events of 2000, 2002, and 2005-06. They saw the Kiffin exodus as just another event requiring reloading. They feel that if Mike Hamilton had been able to hire a ‘proven commodity’ we would be battling for an SEC East crown as I write this.
The luxury that Dooley does not have at this moment in time is that of the ‘proven commodity’ label. As a head coach, he is not one. But the experience of Majors has taught at least some of us that even hiring the hottest (best?) coach in the land is no quick fix.
If Dooley is fired at the end of this season, or even next season, I fear the explosion of exuberance that will come with the ‘proven commodity’ that surely would be the replacement. But such an event may stem another important tide not discussed — apathy. Not only apathy among the general fan base, but apathy of the major donors.
I don’t have the figures of monetary donations to the athletic department, but I suspect that there is some degree of apathy in that camp. That is the hidden wildcard in all of this. The apathy of the general fanbase shows up as empty seats in Neyland Stadium, something that has become increasingly common. That likely translates to some serious cash. But the apathy within the ranks of the major donors could be even more devastating in the present age of college football as a big business — the breadwinner of all other portions of college athletics.
The combination of those donors with Dave Hart has surely learned some hard lessons of the past few years. They know that the decision to come — to retain or release Dooley — is perhaps one of the most crucial decisions they will make in their collective tenures.
If they release Dooley due to an avalanche of unacceptable losses, that will be a relatively easy decision compared to naming the replacement, who will have to do the job that only Doug Dickey and Johnny Majors have done in the last 50 years of Tennessee Vols football.