First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Derek Dooley’s hair is every bit as impressive as you’ve heard, if not more so. Some people have hairstylists; Derek Dooley has designers. He has architects. The jet-black prow over his forehead could cut prosciutto; the part looks like it was crafted by either a Marine Corps drill sergeant or someone who had one standing over him. It is professional hair. It neither makes nor accepts excuses.
The same could be said for Dooley himself, who, when asked whether he perceived any benefit of the doubt from Tennessee’s demanding fan base given the turmoil that preceded him, said any excuses ended in January 2010. "When I met with the team, that was when I said that was behind us. . . . We can’t complain about our numbers anymore — we’re not at 85, but we’ve got enough bodies to put a football team out there.
“What we’ve got right now is just youth. We can’t sit there and use that as an excuse not to succeed.” But he did say he appreciated the support from Tennessee fans during a difficult time in the program’s history: “They’re the most unconditionally loyal group of fans out there. . . . Still seeing people at the Vol Walk, and a hundred thousand fans still packing the stadium even when we were 2-6, our fans were incredible last year. We’re doing our best to meet their expectations — they’re high, and they should be high.”
Last year, Tennessee had a reasonable amount of experience on defense but an offense that was rawer than sashimi. This year the defense is a bit of a patchwork — only one returning starter in the front seven — but the offense seems to be finding its footing behind a more experienced O-line and QB Tyler Bray, who impressed with a four-game winning streak immediately after taking over the starting job last season. “It’s a little bit like parenting,” Dooley said to laughter when describing Bray’s early struggles. “They don’t always do what you want them to do, but then they do it and you say, ‘Well, that’s not as bad as I thought it was.’ He never flinched, he never got affected . . . as long as he continues on that track of improvement, I think we’re all going to be impressed with what Tyler does.”
The Vols will also have one of the league’s most underrated running backs, Tauren Poole, leading the way — and part of that underrated-ness may stem from Dooley himself, who says he told Poole on the way down to Birmingham that “Coach Spurrier said he’s got the best back [Marcus Lattimore] in the league, and I said I agreed with him. [Tauren] said, ‘Yeah, all right, I hear you, coach.’”
But Dooley also said he “wished we had a hundred Tauren Pooles,” and Poole, for his part, is no more interested in making excuses than his coach. “I put that on myself, that I’ve got more to prove,” said Poole, who didn’t make any of last year’s All-SEC teams despite racking up more than 1,000 yards on the ground. “I can’t get mad at the rankings; those [other] guys proved themselves. I definitely love the competition in this league, because it makes us all better.”
Dooley also answered questions about why he cut a big part of the program’s budget allocated for recruiting services, saying it was mainly because he’d never used them much at Louisiana Tech because they couldn’t afford them. “My instinct was ‘cut the money,’ and then I realized we had a hundred million dollars [at Tennessee] and I was like, ‘Why did I do that?’”
The crowd got a good laugh, and Dooley was just about to end his time on a high note when the final question came from the audience: "Coach, you had a couple of games last year that ended . . . peculiarly . . . "
Dooley winced and smiled. “I almost got out of here,” he said.