The mockery doesn’t really bother University of Tennessee fans anymore.
After the mess with the Great Orange Pumpkin, Phil Fulmer, and the drama of Lane Kiffin, and the recruiting imbroglios and the NCAA investigations and the worse-than-mediocre seasons, it’s gotten to the point that Vols fans hardly notice when, once again, the national sports media finds something to laugh at in Knoxville.
So last week when the sports blogosphere picked up a picture of the double doors that head from the locker room out to the indoor football field at the football complex, doors emblazoned with a photograph of a football player and a phrase—“OPPORTUNITY IS NOWHERE”—it was just another day.
“Well that’s a hell of a message to send your football team,” commented Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com.
“Derek Dooley over-kerns,” mocked Deadspin.
“This cannot be real, unless Derek Dooley is making a deep statement about opportunity being a lie the lucky make up to cover up the despair of constant effort in a barren landscape,” Spencer Hall philosophically waxed on his blog Every Day Should Be Saturday.
Of course, if you push open those doors, “NOWHERE” becomes “NOW HERE.” Dooley told GVX247.com beat writer Wes Rucker the next day that the narrow kerning “was not a mistake … It’s designed to make you think. That’s the whole point.
“Ninety percent of the people look at that, and what do they say? ‘Opportunity is nowhere.’ What we want our people to do is think the way 10 percent of the people do—that this is a great opportunity to do special things. … That’s why it reads the way it reads. It’s a play on, ‘How do you look at tough things that happen to you?’—alright? You can look at them as a negative—I mean, that’s how most people do it; ‘Ugh, the sky is falling, it’s the end of the world’—or we say, ‘This is a great opportunity, man.’”
But as Rucker then points out, the point seems to be lost on most of the players, who still read the phrase as “nowhere.”
Those doors, that phrase, that kerning (or lack thereof)—that is 2011 Tennessee Volunteer football.
Opportunity is now here. Opportunity is nowhere. And Derek Dooley knows it.
Derek Dooley’s office looks more Hollywood than Tennessee. Everything is black and glass and metal and leather, except for the giant orange “T” that dominates the front of his massive desk. It feels like a set, which in some ways it is.
Dooley seems mildly embarrassed when I ask about the desk—“It’s Coach Fulmer’s desk,” he says, explaining that the décor is designed in order to impress a 17-year-old recruit, not his coaching colleagues. Although he gushes about the luxurious surroundings—“So much space! I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it”—the furnishings certainly don’t seem to fit the 43-year-old Dooley’s style.
Much has been made of Dooley’s lineage—he’s the son of legendary University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley—but he seems to have inherited his mother Barbara’s impeccable sartorial taste. (That, and the always perfectly coiffed hair, which Sports Illustrated’s Holly Anderson has called “flawless and above reproach at all times.”) He’s wearing crisp, plain-front khaki pants that don’t seem to crease as he sinks down into one of the low black leather sofas, topped with an orange-and-white striped polo with a “T” embroidered on the chest and an Adidas logo embroidered on the sleeve. His black belt is simple, but the quality of the leather quietly murmurs its expense, as do the pale slip-on loafers Dooley is wearing without socks.
It’s an understated, quiet look. After all, everyone knows exactly how much money Dooley makes: $1.8 million last year, $1.9 million this year. He doesn’t need to flaunt it.
Still, Dooley’s salary is chump change compared to the $6 million his former boss Nick Saban makes at Alabama. Dooley was an assistant coach under Saban at LSU from 2000 to 2005 and followed him to the NFL during Saban’s ill-fated two-year tenure at the Miami Dolphins. Saban has a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian, the rules as inflexible as his hair. As the bar fights and arrests of the summer of 2010 have given way to a relatively quiet summer this year, I wondered if Dooley is taking a Sabanesque approach.
“People’s perception of a program is not what that reality is,” Dooley says. It’s unclear if he means that reporters have perhaps made Saban out to be more of authoritarian dictator of football than he is, or if Alabama football players get into more trouble than is reported. What is clear is that Dooley, for all his easygoing charm, won’t put up with much tomfoolery, as evidenced last week by his dismissal of talented safety Janzen Jackson, reported to have dealt with substance abuse issues.
“I’m trying to create a culture that understands the expectations,” Dooley says. He feels like there has been a “monumental leap” since he came on board in January 2010. “There was a definite problem with the culture [then],” he says. “There are a lot of structures now in place. … We have not had a lot of major incidents lately, but nobody can expect a perfect slate. What’s important is that after something happens, the player is truly remorseful and accepts responsibility for what happened. That’s what I look for.”
Dooley points out that these aren’t just UT football players, they’re kids in college. Kids in college do stupid things. Especially freshmen and sophomores—and there are a lot of both on the 2011 Vols. But when I comment that this is a rebuilding year, Dooley looks slightly annoyed.
“We are in a time in our program when we’re very young. I don’t want to use that term, ‘rebuilding’,” Dooley says. “We have some very talented, fresh players, and they are committed to bringing back what we think of as Tennessee football. The bad news is, they’re fresh. But they’re a real fun team to watch, and to watch develop.”
The youth of the team is nowhere more apparent than at the Vols’ Media Days, one hot Sunday afternoon on the field at Neyland Stadium. The players all tower over me, despite my 3-inch wedge sandals, and they seem far too poised to be just 19, 20, 21, 22, as they give interview after interview to reporter after reporter.
But then I study the face of starting quarterback Tyler Bray, the true sophomore from California. His uncombed brushy hair looks like a Brillo pad mated with a mop. His eyebrows could double as caterpillars. Yet as the scruffy stubble around his face makes clear, the 19-year-old Bray still can’t grow enough facial hair for a full beard. When he stands up and walks away from the tent, he looks like a gangly colt, still not at ease in his newly long limbs. This is who so much of the season depends on? This 6-foot-6-inch, 210-pound kid?
On the grass, with nothing but empty seats surrounding them, it’s easy for the players to seem relaxed. As Dooley strolls by, there’s little of the tension you can see coiled in him during practice. But the pressure is on, even if he jokes that it isn’t.
Opportunity is here, in the lanky Bray and the speedy Da’Rick Rogers and the massive freshman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. And there’s opportunity, too, in the weak SEC East—Georgia and Florida are rebuilding (though it’s unlikely the Vols will beat both), Vanderbilt is perennially soft, and Kentucky last beat UT in 1984. Three out-of-conference games—Montana, Buffalo, and MTSU—should be cakewalks. Another, Cincinnati, should be winnable. It seems unlikely the Vols won’t somehow have six wins and another bowl berth.
But, then, it seems unlikely an SEC football team would ever be undisciplined enough to have 13 players on the field, which is exactly what happened at the end of last year’s LSU game. It’s college football. Anything and everything is likely to happen by the time December rolls around.
Opportunity is nowhere. And everywhere. But it’s not just about how you look at it. It’s about how you create it. And how you take advantage of it. Like in that LSU game.
Dooley has a six-year contract. One can assume his job is safe this year, unless the Vols have some spectacularly unlikely collapse and finish the season with a record worse than Vandy. Dooley knows he has some breathing room to restore the Vols to their glory days, but he also knows that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to follow in his dad’s footsteps, as the head coach and athletic director at one SEC team for a combined 40 years.
“I’m proud of the legacy he had at Georgia. I’d love to think we could build something here like that,” Dooley says. “But times are very different.”
Dooley says the constant exposure, via talk radio and the Internet and social media, means he has a bigger and bigger challenge to sustain interest in himself every year. “People get sick of people,” he says with a wry smile. “The more you know about them, the more you stop caring. Like, people want to know what my favorite restaurant is. I don’t want to tell them that.”
“I was going to ask you what your favorite restaurant is,” I say. “You really don’t want people to know?”
“No, I don’t,” Dooley says. “There’s something to privacy.”