Dooley explains the final moments of the LSU game
KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley has no problem identifying the one moment he would do over.
The Tennessee coach seems to have a much tougher time coming up with exactly how to change it.
A brutal last-second loss at LSU marred by a penalty for having 13 players on the field during what would have been a game-clinching snap clearly stands out in Dooley's mind as the one that got away, and even with a bowl trip locked up and set to be announced tonight, there may be a part of him that never truly gets over it.
So when he was offered a mulligan on anything from his first year with the Vols on or off the field, Dooley barely even hesitated and flashed back to the first week of October.
"Yeah, I'd find a way to get two guys off the field at LSU," he said early last week. "I really believe that - it lingered a little bit longer than we all think.
"It did for me personally. You know, it was hard to get over that. As much as I had to say, 'We've got to move on, we've got to move on,' it was hard. I'm not sure it didn't affect us a little bit."
The Vols certainly showed signs of an emotional hangover a week later in a blowout loss at Georgia, arguably the only game this season in which they never seriously competed. And in terms of getting back to the postseason, UT (6-6, 3-5 SEC) might not have been under so much pressure down the stretch if it had snuck out of Tiger Stadium with the upset and a signature victory for Dooley.
Through all the second-guessing and heartache, though, the situation the Vols faced with the Tigers surprisingly allowing the clock to tick away with the ball just short of the goal line trailing by four points was virtually unprecedented - and therefore hard to prepare for as well.
With hindsight and a second chance, Dooley might have avoided some of that the lingering pain. But once the Vols were able to finally move on, out of that disappointment came a team perhaps better equipped to dealing with unusual circumstances in the future. Those final hectic seconds at Tiger Stadium might have been difficult regardless given the unorthodox decision-making, but it's the part UT controlled that Dooley dwells on now.
"Well, you would just go back and practice them running in and you running in, you would have to do something," he said. "It's really just about making every player on your team responsible to be aware of what's happening. You know, not leaning on other people.
"I think that's probably the biggest thing, and that's why you see veteran teams always playing so well because they just have so much experience and they're so aware out there."
That lends itself to better reactions in those moments of pressure, including an ability to adapt when they don't play out as anticipated.
Dooley tried to make that point about his inexperienced team a couple weeks after that loss with an analogy to the Germans in World War II, though the message was somewhat lost in the laughter of his bunker re-enactment, complete with imaginary binoculars and a radio. It was no joking matter for the Vols, though, and during their four-game winning streak to close the season, they actually looked like they had switched sides.
"When you get out there and when you're playing well, you have a framework, you have a structure, but then you use initiative and creativity to perform," Dooley said. "Our team really started doing that in the second half, on both sides of the ball. We got out of the, 'Coach told me to do this.' We got out of the, 'Well, he didn't make the call.' And we got into, 'I know what I'm supposed to do, and now I've got to go play.'
"Play the play on principle, react to what's happening in the game and don't be afraid to trigger if you see something. I think that moment defines what that analogy was about."
Dooley would clearly still prefer to change that outcome. But if it helped alter the course of the season in November, that mulligan might be better off in his pocket.