Mattingly: Dooley brings southern comfort to jilted UT fans

There is no doubt future University of Tennessee historians will include Jan. 12, 2010, as a momentous day in Vol football history. There have been very few days this significant. Everything happened so quickly, so "out of the box," as coaching changes go.

Everything wrong with the landscape of present-day college football suddenly came crashing down, its epicenter centered over the University of Tennessee campus. There were fans convinced mightily this was the day the "music died," that life as we knew it was nearing an end, with Tennessee football never being the same again. There was great anger and disappointment, not only over Lane Kiffin's decision to leave Tennessee for his "dream job" at USC, but also with the way everything transpired.

Others felt liberated from a coach they never liked from the outset, liberated from someone they never knew, someone with whom they had never perceived a connection, even from afar. It was a mismatch between coach and culture.

The "hired gun" coach of the 2000s, single-mindedly focused on winning and money, not necessarily in that order, is symptomatic of a disturbing trend.

"I'll coach," they say to anyone who will listen. "Leave me alone, and let me do it." Coaches' television shows, long a staple in Southern college football, seem to be a burden, mitigated only by the disbursement of a check.

Obsessing over the state of the athletic program has been a cottage industry over the years for Vol followers, as early 20th century fans worried excessively whether Tennessee was ever going to beat Sewanee or Vanderbilt.

They were equally concerned after Gen. Robert R. Neyland and uncounted Vols returned from World War II, and the accustomed-to success did not return quickly. It was the same when the legendary Bowden Wyatt, the man with the movie-star good looks, took the program to the heights in the mid-1950s and then saw it crash and burn in the early 1960s.

There was a crossroads moment in 1962, when Gen. Neyland died. A year later, the single-wing was consigned to history.

Doug Dickey came in for the 1964 season and led the Vols back to the football Promised Land, then left after the 1969 campaign. John Majors and Phillip Fulmer were old Vols who came home to coach, each making their mark and achieving considerable success, before getting on the wrong side of an always volatile, energetic, and passionate fan base.

Lane Kiffin, albeit aloof, controversial, and combative, brought renewed hope to many of the Vol faithful, before an uncomfortable departure.

That all seemed to be forgotten, however, with the announcement of a new leader for the Vol program.

Derek Dooley, son of former Georgia's Vince Dooley, came to Knoxville with a seven-year pedigree with Nick Saban at LSU and the NFL's Dolphins, before a 3-year stint at Louisiana Tech as coach and athletic director.

In his remarks, Derek indicated an appreciation for the unique and special nature of Tennessee football.

"There's nothing more important than an institution's culture and tradition," he said, talking about creating a bond with Vol lettermen, players who have worn the orange jersey and created the history.

He also recalled having "vivid memories of Tennessee, following them as a youngster," indicating he knew there was something special about the orange jersey, the "Ts" on the helmets, the checkerboard end zones, and the "Vol Walk." Having a son named "Peyton" probably won't hurt him either.

That's all exceptionally important from the vantage point of history. How do you create excitement for the seasons to come, if you don't understand what's gone before?

He brings the perspective of someone who grew up observing the rivalries dominating the SEC, understanding the passion that defines Saturday afternoons. His Sunday television show should be something special for the fans, the program's lifeblood.

The events surrounding Kiffin's departure engendered such controversy, such amazing vitriol on the chat boards, such spirited discussion wherever Vol fans might gather, for that very reason.

If fans didn't care, if they didn't live and die with the program every game, every day, there wouldn't be such intense debates.

The concept unifying the fans is "belief." It may be irrational or unexplainable, yet it's unquestioned. People often make judgments about their favorite teams in youthful moments, decisions that dominate a lifetime. These are judgments that can be shaken, but never demolished.

Derek Dooley shares a belief in the things fans consider important. He'll quickly become one of us. The kid lurking in all of our hearts and minds wants desperately to believe that. Seen in the harsh and more rational light of adulthood, it will probably not happen overnight.

Tennessee has risen from the ashes before and will do so again.

This is Tennessee football, and the future is now.

Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). Send comments to tjmshm@comcast.net. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian."

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Comments » 3

WestTennVol writes:

Good stuff! So tired of the same old...but if he dosen't win...hell, we all know that. It's great to be a Tennessee Vol! Even today. Thanks TM.

Mule_Days_King writes:

Nice article, Mr Mattingly. Very well-written.

snoopbob87 writes:

In 1956 or 57 I was seven years old and I became a lifetime Vol fan. Something about the importance and respect which the Vols were held in by my family, the radio announcer voice, the excitement of the setting and the game play by play. Tom M is right to say, day by day fans want to know about this team that means so much to us all.

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