Tennessee closed out its season Thursday night with a heartbreaking loss in brutal fashion.
But one day later, the Vols were able to score a significant victory to start working on next year.
On the first day that might have suited the timetable for Texas to fill its vacancy at defensive coordinator with presumptive leading candidate Justin Wilcox, the UT assistant withdrew his name from consideration and backed up his commitment to coach Derek Dooley and the Vols on New Year’s Eve following Thursday’s 30-27 loss in double overtime to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. According to multiple reports from Texas, the Longhorns were waiting until after bowls to fill the empty spots on their staff — but they’ll have to keep looking for somebody to lead the defense.
“I’m extremely fortunate to be at Tennessee, like we all are,” Wilcox said by phone Friday evening. “I can’t wait to move into recruiting and spring football.
“I believe 100 percent in what Coach Dooley is doing here, the direction of the program, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’s going the right way, and I think all of us are committed to doing it the right way. That’s where we’re headed.”
Wilcox had an opportunity to defuse the speculation he was headed elsewhere during his only availability with the media during bowl season, but he neither confirmed nor denied that he was a candidate with the Longhorns when specifically asked on Dec. 22. But discussions that occurred between Wilcox and Texas didn’t get far before the candidate pulled out of consideration to continue rebuilding the Vols into a championship contender.
Money doesn’t appear to be a factor in the decision, particularly because the Vols have deep enough pockets to compete with the Longhorns — one of the biggest spenders in the country.
Former Texas defensive coordinator and new Florida coach Will Muschamp made $900,000 last season — more than the $625,000 Wilcox is scheduled to make in the second season of a three-year deal with the Vols — working under coach Mack Brown. Wilcox’s deal with the Vols also carries a $300,000 buyout.
UT (6-7, 3-5 SEC) has proved in the past it won’t hesitate to compensate coaches it wants, and despite a limited roster, Wilcox is widely considered to have made the most of the talent on hand this season and figures to be in line for a raise.
The Vols might not have had the finish they wanted this season against the Tar Heels (8-5, 4-4 ACC), but before the frantic, bizarre ending in regulation that led to a game-tying field goal, the defense had held a dangerous passing attack in check and only allowed 17 points before the final second was put back on the clock to set up the extra sessions. And while the offense received the majority of the attention during a four-game winning streak in November just to earn the bowl bid, Wilcox led a unit that didn’t allow more than 14 points in any of those contests to end the regular season.
Despite suggesting he would have a long list of coaches willing to fill in for Wilcox should he elect to leave, Dooley did want to keep his staff together going into his second season — and he’ll now get that chance.
“I didn’t say that meaning I don’t care if my coaches leave,” Dooley said during his first bowl news conference at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville last week. “I didn’t do a good job of communicating that to you all, and that was my fault.
“I don’t want him to leave.”
That won’t be a problem now for the Vols. On the first day he might have realistically bolted for Texas, Wilcox reaffirmed his pledge to the same UT where he was already employed.
Proving Point: At a minimum, the Vols could have avoided overtime without a low extra point being blocked after taking the lead in the fourth quarter, and in all likelihood they’d still be celebrating a victory.
But starting with Dooley and trickling down through the players that spoke with the media Thursday night, UT refused to point a finger at kicker Daniel Lincoln since it had plenty of other chances to take care of business.
“I mean, it’s just basically a learning lesson,” defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. “There are a lot of things we could have done better. We could have worked a lot harder. Now we’ve just got to go into the offseason and work harder. Never take things for granted. Just feel the pain that we are now so that we don’t do it again.
“It’s just breaks don’t go our way sometimes. There are some things we could have done better. They didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves.”
Bumps and Bruises: UT didn’t report any injuries from the sideline on Thursday night, and school spokesman Jimmy Stanton wasn’t aware of any new health concerns after the game as the Vols turn their attention to offseason workouts and spring practice.