Dooley: Why a bowl game is important
It was exactly what he expected when he arrived on Jan. 15 to take over a major program after three years at Louisiana Tech.
What Dooley is still trying to figure out nearly a year later is why exactly there's still been such a swarm of attention on him each and every day since that night.
"The one thing I think that makes this job unique is the scrutiny," Dooley said earlier this month. "The media exposure in everything you do, that's probably been the biggest adjustment for me.
"I wasn't surprised early on at the attention because it is Tennessee. But once the newness was over, it was a little bit like, 'Why are you guys still around?' Then I realized you weren't going anywhere, you kind of live here. I was just surprised, I wasn't mad at it or angry, I just didn't expect it to be that many every day. Usually I just expected two or three (reporters)."
Instead Dooley typically found four or five times that many whenever he was available, just one area where he had to learn and adjust during his first season with the Vols.
Of course, in the long run he'll be measured much more for his ability on the sidelines than in press conferences, and despite his previous experience running a program and plenty of time around other SEC powerhouses, there was a bit of on-the-job training on the field, as well.
And if Year One was a time for learning, there were lessons available for just about everybody as Dooley put his mark on UT.
From 2-6 to 6-6
Mike Hamilton stood just a few yards away from the field in the northeast corner of Neyland Stadium, looking out at the closing seconds of a dismal second half in a blowout loss to rival Alabama on Oct. 23.
Behind him, the abuse aimed at the UT athletic director from at least one fan was almost impossible to ignore.
But Hamilton never turned around, never acknowledged the insults and never wavered in his support for the man he had hired to replace Lane Kiffin after his abrupt departure on Jan. 12.
Ideally he wouldn't have drawn up a 2-5 record that would get even worse the next week at South Carolina as the best way to get started with Dooley at the helm. Though even if all the background research and months of working together already had given Hamilton an idea of what his new coach was made of, he at least had a true test for the way Dooley would respond to adversity now.
"I think this reveals more about him," Hamilton said. "I think the 6-6 record out of a 2-6 reveals more. We had an inordinate amount of injuries this year, and in a lot of cases at key positions where there wasn't a tremendous amount of depth. So to be able to handle that adversity and bring everything together in a way that creates some synergy and finishes strong means more to me than if we had blown through the deal the first year.
"Certainly you want to win as many games as possible, don't misinterpret that statement. But we knew going into the year that because of our thin roster that in this league it was going to be hard to overcome in the first year."
Dooley might not have squeezed a winning record out of that roster, but after a winless October he did pull a perfect November out of it to clinch a bid to the Music City Bowl against North Carolina on Thursday in Nashville.
So if Hamilton needed to see a positive response from UT and Dooley down the stretch, there's little question he got it.
"Before the season it was just about if we would improve during the year, how the team would respond to a new coach, how the dynamics of players that had been recruited by three different coaches and have worked under four strength coaches and 20-something assistant coaches, how that would all be managed and brought into some kind of chemistry that would accomplish something on the field," Hamilton said. "For me, that further validates Derek because that's not easy. Particularly when you're sitting at the end of October and you're 2-6 and you wonder about, 'What is the psyche of your coaching staff and your team?'
"I think they've answered the bell on that."
The early results obviously weren't good, and though the Vols were supposed to be ignoring them, a senior class that wanted to leave the program on a high note could sometimes be caught cheating on that a bit.
The veterans embraced "The Process" that Dooley has preached since he arrived, quickly adapting again to a coaching change and helping establish an approach that needed to divert attention away from just the outcome on Saturday. But they also had an eye on a bowl game during their only season with him as the coach, though with their backs against the wall the Vols started sounding more and more like Dooley every week.
"I think Coach Dooley has really stressed and I've taken to heart that all you can control is what you can do," linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "Focus on yourself as a player, do your job and do it to the best of your ability, don't try to overdo something, don't try to be Superman out there.
"The results are what's meant to happen."
Eventually some positive ones rolled in during the final month of the season, extending the careers of those seniors for a few more practices and a bowl game.
Along with it could come a legacy and an example of what Dooley's process can produce.
"There are so many factors, so many outside motivations that we could have focused on and I think that would deter us because we'd get caught up the emotions and all that outside stuff," Reveiz said. "I'm a big believer that everything is put in our paths for a reason, and it's to build us.
"Obviously, I think adverse times, you learn the most from those times."
The good times aren't back at UT yet by any stretch of the imagination, and Dooley is clearly aware that he wasn't hired in the hopes he could go 6-6 and to the Music City Bowl every year.
He brought a plan with him to lead the Vols back to championship contention nearly a year ago, but whether it's in dealing with the media or picking a quarterback, Dooley has proved to be flexible when needed. So if that blueprint does need an adjustment or two, a year in the fire should at least give him a better idea of where to make them.
"Well, you're never fully prepared for everything until you get in it," Dooley said. "As far as coaching, probably the biggest surprise, of course, was where our personnel situation was in the spring. But what we tried to do when we got here was evaluate where we were as a program and we evaluated everything - from all the football stuff, personnel, schemes to off the field and how we support the players, whether it's academic support, personal growth, culture, everything.
"We've set on a course to make a lot of change internally, and we've made a bunch of changes and we're still making changes. The one thing I feel good about is every day we're making progress, and I think this season is kind of a microcosm of the whole year. Start off tough, nobody really understands who I am, what I stand for, then over time the process starts to take over."
As Dooley quickly discovered, there will be no shortage of people around to document it.