It was not something his mother, Barbara, had in mind, nor his father, Vince, for that matter. “What, I’ve got to go through this again?” she cried out, reflecting on the career she endured with Vince. “Isn’t once in a lifetime enough?”
“It would have been better if it had been somewhere on the West Coast,” Vince said, “not this close to home.”
So it was that executive-natured Derek Dooley, 42, their youngest of four children, walked into Knoxville in January, the football coach of the Tennessee Vols.
He had been the one of five candidates said to have won out, and there was no trace of reluctance in his reaction.
“How can you ask for anything more than the University of Tennessee?” was young Dooley’s response.
Well, that was January. This is October, and looming on the schedule this week was a road sign that warned of impending danger. This is a reference to Alabama, no longer No. 1 in the nation, but just as dangerous as before the Crimson Tide had been done in by South Carolina.
It’s not the major matchup it used to be, when Bob Neyland strode the sideline at Tennessee and Frank Thomas, then later Bear Bryant, at Alabama and the South stood still.
Tennessee has weathered a coaching crisis of late. First, there was the firing of home-bred Phillip Fulmer, then the one-year tenure of Lane Kiffin, who lingered just long enough to learn what a “Vol” is. They were shocked around Knoxville when Mike Hamilton, the athletics director, found a successor at Louisiana Tech, which may have sent Terry Bradshaw to the big leagues, but not many coaches.
One of the blood-pressure dates on the Tennesse schedule was one with Georgia — in Athens. “Barbara didn’t realize how tough it was going to be,” Vince said, “but she found out early.”
She was in the family box at Sanford Stadium, and watched her son’s team take a licking. Vince stayed home and took it by television. “No point it getting any closer than that,” he said.
Being a coaching twosome, do he and Derek talk very often?
“Not a lot,” Vince said, “and when we do it’s like talking to a neighbor over the back fence.”
The Alabama matchup renewed Derek’s relationship with one of his former bosses. He was Nick Saban’s recruiting coordinator when Saban passed through LSU on his way to Alabama.
“Derek was a little young for that job, I thought,” Vince said, “but it seemed to work out.
Then it was on to Louisiana Tech, where he was the only football coach-athletics director on a campus ranked as “major’ in the country. And that’s where the Vols found him. Derek was a letter-winning graduate at Virginia, then earned his law degree at Georgia, while his bride-to-be earned hers in the UGA medical school.
So far, this hasn’t been a rewarding season for the Dooleys, either close to the Dooleys in Knoxville, or close to the heart. Vince understands, but does Barbara?
Vince has been there, but his first season in Athens, as surprising a choice at Georgia as Derek was at Tennessee, developed into a Sun Bowl invitation.
Nothing so likely for Derek, while mama anguishes on.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.