Derek Dooley: Can He Make the Vols Win Big by Thinking Small?

Photo with no caption

photo by David Luttrell

In a nutshell, you can sum up the University of Tennessee’s last three football coaches by their fashion choices.

Phillip Fulmer was ball cap and khakis—comfort food for Vols fans, who also accepted surfer-dude-with-a-’tude Lane Kiffin and his untucked baggy polo shirt, until he went coastal.

But Derek Dooley is blue blazer, tie, nice shoes, looking like the lawyer he is. His cultured Georgia twang and self-deprecating one-liners put us at ease, but he’s a CEO-type coach with a focus on details, organization, and building the character of young men.

“I’m a guy with old-school values,” Dooley told a faculty meet-and-greet in April, “but I’m not necessarily an old-school guy.” The idea of a faculty meet-and-greet was an old-school idea in itself. “I don’t recall an event like this since Doug Dickey was the coach,” said one professor.

At that meeting, Dooley talked about the entitled mindset as a problem in sports at all levels and all across the country. He talked about changing the culture, and pointed to head strength coach Bennie Wylie and his efforts in the weight room to stress accountability, coax step-by-step attitude changes, and ultimately build men.

Things had gotten lax under Fulmer. And though Kiffin had the Vols hitting hard—they nearly beat Nick Saban’s BCS-title-bound Alabama—he let his players throw tantrums at coaches on the sidelines.

Dooley is focusing on the details of how to win football games, details that he learned in seven years as sorcerer Saban’s apprentice. He is working to establish a disciplined culture. And he hired former Vol and Redskin Andre Lott to run a character-building program called Vol for Life.

After a Big Orange Caravan stop last spring, a young fan was heard to say, “He reminds me of Clark Kent.” With Dooley’s jet-black hair and dark eyes, he could pass for Superman’s alter-ego (or maybe Christopher Reeve). And perhaps that’s what fans are hoping for now, a buttoned-down coach with secret, super-human powers to rescue them.

He’s Type A, to be sure. “Derek and I are the most organized people and the biggest neat freaks ever,” says Shawn Moore, Dooley’s quarterback and housemate from his college days at Virginia. “And he keeps a comb with him because he wants to look sharp.”

He certainly comes by his perspectives on character and his attention to detail honestly.

“It came from Dad, no question,” says Daniel Dooley, Derek’s older brother. “We grew up under a Marine. If you think Derek is detail-oriented, Dad is a whole other level. He’s very structured, detail-oriented, and it’s all about character—how much your name is worth, what you represent. He told the team every week, ‘You represent the University of Georgia, your family, your parents, your hometown.’ We got the same message at home.”

But faced with a troubling array of issues—a program in chaos after Kiffin’s departure, the aftermath of a July bar brawl involving several of his players, and the usual high expectations of Vol fans—will attention to character and detail be enough?

Like Father...

Vince Dooley also has that CEO demeanor. For 17 of his 24 years as coach at Georgia, his right-hand man was bald-headed defensive coordinator Erk Russell, Alpha Dawg of the Junkyard Dawgs, who before games used to butt heads with his linemen until his forehead bled. But Vince was tie and blazer.

“There was a lot of energy in the house,” remembers Daniel. “With Dad gone a lot of the time, Mom was both mother and father. Keeping four kids under wraps was a challenge. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of arguing. It was fun and competitive—very competitive, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Derek, the tail-ender of four, was Barbara Dooley’s baby boy, whom she called her “Precious.” As the youngest, he learned by watching. “Ninety-five percent of what I learned was watching my older sisters and older brother,” he says in an interview. “Every time they screwed up, it was a great lesson.”

His organizational skills loomed early. One summer, the family climbed into the station wagon for a week-long trip from Athens, Ga., to Boston, stopping in Washington, D.C., and points in between. “Dad was in the process of recruiting Herschel Walker, so he had to stay back,” says Daniel.

Though Derek was just 10, he was in charge of the family money. “He did the budget,” Daniel remembers. “He calculated what we’d spent and he knew how much we had to spend. Deanna, Denise, and I, we couldn’t have cared less about the details, but Derek was all over it.”

“I was the only one that wanted to,” explains Derek. “We were on an extremely tight budget. I had to make some major fourth-quarter adjustments to the tolls in the Northeast, which I hadn’t accounted for. We had three cents when we pulled into the driveway at the end.”

When Derek was in eighth grade, Daniel and his senior teammates coached the spring drills for the middle-schoolers getting ready for Clarke High. That group, with Derek at tight end, won the Georgia AAAA title when they were seniors, and Daniel took credit for the early coaching. In the reverse of Derek’s career path, Daniel graduated from Georgia and went to work for the guru of NFL scouts, Gil Brandt, head of player personnel for the Cowboys. But after a year he got an offer from a college roommate to go into business, where he is today.

Vince and Barbara Dooley wanted Derek to go Ivy. “I toured Princeton and Yale, but that wasn’t the college experience I was looking for. I wanted a larger Southern school where I could play Division I football,” Derek says. “They didn’t have a scholarship for me at Virginia so I walked on. It was important that I get out of the SEC. It was different and new, where nobody knew who my dad was.” (They might have known who his uncle was, since Bill Dooley moved as head coach from Virginia Tech to Wake Forest in Derek’s second year.)

As it happened, that University of Virginia team had a number of high-profile sons, including linebacker Yusef Jackson, a son of Jesse; Ricky Peete, son of golfer Calvin; Scott Griese, son of Bob and brother of Brian; Bill Curry Jr., son of the NFL center and college coach; and guard Roy Brown, son of Ohio Congressman Clarence Brown and brother of actor Clancy Brown of Bad Boys, The Shawshank Redemption, and Highlander.

Dooley majored in Government and Foreign Affairs. “Like most 18-year-olds I had no idea,” he says. “I took one Government course and I liked it. Then I took another and I liked it, and then another. I’ve always liked watching governments interact.”

Dooley’s coach at Virginia was George Welsh, who had been an All-America quarterback at Navy in the ’50s. Welsh, the gruff ex-Navy man, could be short on warm and fuzzies, but he was long on X’s and O’s. “He was organized and detailed,” says Dooley. “We always knew we were well prepared.”

“He’s one of the best preparation coaches I’ve ever been around,” agrees Moore, who played several years in the NFL and Canadian Football League and is now the receivers coach at UVA. “I never wanted to be a coach,” Dooley says. “But even in college I loved football. I loved practice. I liked the locker room. I loved everything about football. Most people aren’t like that.”

He redshirted his freshman fall, then lettered for four seasons, winning his scholarship in 1988. The team shared an ACC title in 1989. In 1990, Dooley was a starter. “He was overshadowed by a receiver named Herman Moore, who high-jumped 7 feet and played 10 years with Detroit,” recalls Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Austin Murphy. “But I went to Derek for the money quote.”

That 1990 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for three weeks, until it lost to Georgia Tech 41-38 on a last-second field goal. Shawn Moore finished fourth in the Heisman voting, but the Cavaliers ended the season with a 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl.

“Ending up ranked No. 23 was disappointing,” says Moore, who was invited to play in several all-star games but wanted to do only two. “The Senior Bowl called and I said I’d get back to them,” he recalls. “They invited Derek thinking I might decide to come.” Dooley went and caught a few balls from Brett Favre in the first day’s workouts before pulling a hamstring. “I have never seen anyone throw as hard as he did,” says Dooley, who stayed on to hold for kicks.

By that time a teammate had introduced Dooley to Allison Jeffers, and they had started dating. Dooley likes to say that he finished in four and a half years and Allison finished in three and a half years, “So what does that tell you?”

Allison’s younger brother Patrick was in high school in Fort Worth, Texas, thinking about colleges. “I’d met Patrick,” says Dooley. “He wasn’t recruited well. He wanted to get away from home to a good academic school. I told the coaches, ‘This guy is six-four. He’s only 190, but he’s got a big frame and he runs track, so he’s fast.’ They looked at his tapes and said, ‘We don’t want him.’ I said, ‘Bring him in and pretend you like him, and you’ll get him for free.’”

As his soon-to-be brother-in-law had done, Jeffers walked-on at Mr. Jefferson’s University. He earned his scholarship, made All-ACC and played for five seasons in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with Denver in 1997. So much for the exact science of talent evaluation.

Struck by Colin Powell

The Walk-On: Derek Dooley in uniform at the University of Virginia. “Even in college I loved football,” he says. “I loved practice. I liked the locker room. I loved everything about football. Most people aren’t like that.”

Photo courtesy U.Va. Sports Information

The Walk-On: Derek Dooley in uniform at the University of Virginia. “Even in college I loved football,” he says. “I loved practice. I liked the locker room. I loved everything about football. Most people aren’t like that.”

“For lack of any ideas of what to do,” says Dooley, after graduation in 1991 he lobbied for Coca-Cola in Washington, D.C., for a year while Allison finished up in Charlottesville. Then he decided to go to law school and figure out what he wanted to do.

Shawn Moore remembers thinking, “He’s not going to law school.”

While Dooley got his law degree at Georgia, Allison got her medical degree at the Georgia College of Medicine in Augusta. Derek came out and got a good job at an Atlanta firm. “He was miserable in an office tied to a desk,” says brother Daniel. “He was not happy, and looking for something else.”

“When you go to law school,” Derek says, “it sucks you into the legal family. You wake up and you’re a lawyer, and you still don’t know what you want to do with your life. I like a lot of things about the law, but it wasn’t my passion. There wasn’t a turning point. There were six months of turning points. But it really struck me when I was reading Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. Of all the things he’d done, working for presidents and dealing with world leaders, he said he liked nothing better than when he was with the troops in the field, with all the mud and camaraderie and working together as a team. When I read that, it hit me. What I loved was football, the practice, the locker room, working hard toward a goal and having a result.”

He quit his job at the law firm and caught on as a graduate assistant at Georgia, coaching defensive backs.

“Everybody, including George and his father, tried to talk him out of coaching,” says Sandra Welsh, wife of Dooley’s old coach. “Praise God, he followed his heart.”

“He went from making $90,000 as a first-year lawyer to making $9,000 as a graduate assistant at Georgia,” says Daniel. “I told him, ‘You’ve gone from 90 to nine. You’re going backwards, son.’”

From Georgia, Derek caught on at SMU, where he coached wide receivers. After his third season, he saw that Nick Saban had left Michigan State to take the job at LSU. Just one coach had come with Saban, so he had nine spots to fill.

There were no previous connections between the two. Saban, having once worked on a Cleveland Browns staff under New England’s Darth Vader-like leader Bill Belichick, comes from that pedigree of dour, brusque, relentlessly successful coaches that traces its roots to the gloomy, irascible taskmaster Bill Parcells.

“I called down there to get an interview,” Dooley recalls, “and we spent four hours one-on-one. After four hours, he said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ A typical Nick good-bye. I thought to myself, ‘I guess I didn’t get the job.’ I asked the secretary, and she said, ‘I guess we’ll let you know.’” Saban called and offered him the job the next day.

“He took a chance on me,” says Dooley. “As a starting point, we were very much in line from the beginning. We were cut from the same cloth about knowing what it takes to win football games.” It may also be that they made a good team in part because Dooley’s communicative, affable personality provided a merciful counterpoint to Saban’s.

“When I was on his staff,” says Dooley, “I thrived on his work environment. I tried to take on as much as I could take on, and he gave me opportunities to grow, recruiting, tight ends, special teams, running backs.”

Even before Saban’s recruiting prowess was immortalized in The Blind Side, he was known as a master of signing the talent. What did Dooley learn from him? “On recruiting,” he says, “it was the process. It was less about a sales job and more about relationship-building over time. It wasn’t a lot of froth and smoke and mirrors, and it was not a lot of emotion tied to it. We’d show the players how if they come to our program, we can show ’em how they can be successful.”

As recruiting coordinator, Dooley helped sign the nation’s No. 1 recruiting classes in 2001 and 2003, which helped LSU win the BCS national title in 2003 and earned Dooley a promotion to assistant head coach in 2004. All this time Allison, an Ob/Gyn, was commuting 45 minutes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In 2005, when Saban jumped to the Miami Dolphins, Dooley jumped with him, as tight ends coach. “It was a Ph.D. in X’s and O’s and in evaluating talent,” says Dooley. How exact a science is evaluating talent in the NFL, whose scouts were once split down the middle as to whether to pick Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning? “Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you know everything,” says Dooley with a smile and a chuckle. (The Dooleys’ son Peyton is not named for Manning, by the way. Allison just liked the name.)

After two years with Miami, when Saban moved to Alabama, Dooley got his first head coaching job, at Louisiana Tech, where he took a struggling program and built up from 3-10, to 5-7, to an 8-5 record, including a victory over Northern Illinois in the Independence Bowl.

In the tradition of the Dooley family trip to Boston, Louisiana Tech President Dan Reneau asked Derek the budget wiz to add athletic director to his duties, just as Vince had for many years doubled as coach and AD.

At Louisiana Tech, Derek also taught a class in Sports Management, which gave him a shock when he looked out over the 200 or so students in the auditorium. “I wasn’t used to seeing hats, cell phones,” he says. “I told them we had to have a get some class rules right away. No Hats. No cell phones. No texting. And get your butt in here on time.”

But Texting is Okay, Sometimes

When Lane Kiffin made his January dash to the beach, UT athletic director Mike Hamilton started texting hot coaches like a teenager. Though Dooley was coming off a 4-8 rebuilding season, Dooley got a text on a Wednesday that asked, “Would you be interested in talking to us?”

“I almost texted back, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’” he says. “I didn’t get too excited at first, because I knew they’d be talking to a lot of guys.”

That Thursday, Dooley arrived for his interview with Hamilton, holding a loose-leaf binder comprising his complete coaching philosophy and day-to-day schedule. “I went in and tried to be myself,” he says. “Actually, I don’t need a binder, because everything is in my brain.”

He was hired that Friday. Since then it’s been a whirlwind.

The football gods have a sense of humor, of course. They heard all about Dooley’s trying to change the entitled team culture and his admirable Vol for Life program. So in the wee hours of July 9 the gods sprinkled whupass dust on the Strip and watched the fun, as a handful of UT players got into a fight at Bar Knoxville. The police charged two players, receiver Da’Rick Rogers and safety Darren Myles, with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, among other things.

Dooley quickly talked with the players involved. He kicked Myles off the team—it was his second arrest in three months—and suspended two others. By handling “the Incident” with some deliberate speed, Dooley earned some tentative nods of approval.

“When the Incident happened,” Dooley says, “I can’t say I was very stunned, because I knew that we weren’t going to change the culture overnight. But I did feel that it validated the importance of the Vol for Life program.”

In late July, just a couple of weeks after the Incident, Dooley waxed eloquent before a Crowne Plaza ballroom full of Rotarians, who like nothing better than to hear about character and values. “It’s the paradox of sports,” he said. “We train our athletes to be tough, teaching men to be warriors, that you don’t back down. But we don’t have the balance, and it’s destructive. The responsibility we have as coaches is to teach that balance, that off the field it’s okay to be vulnerable.” In the world of sport, Dooley said, “There’s more entitlement, more media exposure, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Somewhere we’ve lost the ideas of shame and honor, of innocent versus guilty.

“We college coaches spend so much time on academics and on developing these young men as football players, it’s like there’s a big void when it comes to personal growth. Vol for Life is designed to help a UT player turn pro as a man, to fill that void, that character-development component, teaching the consequences of right and wrong, importance of community service, spiritual growth, life skills, and setting up a career after football.”

It will take a season or two for Dooley to stock the shelves with the talent to compete with juggernauts like Florida, LSU, and Alabama (and his old mentor Saban, fresh off that gol’ durned 2009 national title).

The Volunteers are shallow on defense. The spiritual leader is middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, like Dooley a former walk-on, who is coming back heroically from an ACL injury.

The offensive line is new. But junior quarterback Matt Simms—son of quarterback/commentator Phil and brother of the Titans’ QB Chris—has gained wisdom after washing out with a bad attitude as a freshman at Louisville and playing last season at El Camino (Calif.) Community College. Tailback Tauren Poole has opened eyes at practices, as has a veteran receiving corps, led by 6-foot-6-inch tight end Luke Stocker.

Reality is that six wins would be a great start for the Dooley era, and just four wins a distinct possibility.

In the meantime, Dooley and his staff are still working on the culture.

“It’s really day-to-day behavior,” he explained last week. “How to have manners when you sit down with someone. Now they take care of their lockers and personal spaces. It’s how they carry themselves when you bring visitors around. Step 1 is how they act when they’re around us. Step 2 is when we’re not around.

“It’s gratifying when some of our support people say that so-and-so came in, and we had an issue about something, and a year ago he would have screamed and not handled it right. Now he’s able to work on it.”

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

Whiskeypapa writes:

FIGHT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT FOR THE ORANGE AND WHITE!!!

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