HOOVER, Ala. — Although Derek Dooley still hasn’t arrived at his first SEC football media days, the conference already has its arms wide open for the new Tennessee coach.
Commissioner Mike Slive took a couple of subtle shots at the guy who used to have the UT job, Florida coach Urban Meyer looked positively thrilled that Lane Kiffin was gone and Dooley’s old boss, Nick Saban, praised his new coaching rival. Dooley might not be in town yet, but just about everybody at the Wynfrey Hotel on Wednesday seemed excited by the prospect that he would be representing the Vols instead of the alternative.
“(A) head-coaching change took place at Tennessee when Derek Dooley’s predecessor left to return to his western roots,” a smiling Slive said during his opening remarks. “I want to welcome coach Dooley back to the SEC.
“And when I say welcome, I mean welcome.”
It surely was no coincidence that Slive immediately segued away from Kiffin — who he never mentioned by name — to regional pride and a sense of family, particularly since the cultural fit and Dooley’s ties to the conference have endeared him as much to the Vols as it has the league office.
He took Dan Mullen off the hook as the new guy on the block, which the Mississippi State acknowledged as a plus during his podium session.
His hiring surely made life easier on Florida’s Meyer, who flashed a wide smile when asked about Southern California’s recent NCAA sanctions before declining to comment.
And it also gave Saban another friendly face to see on the opposite sideline, even if the rivalry between the Crimson Tide and the Vols won’t go on hold because the coaches are on good terms.
“You know, Derek is a fine young coach,” Saban said. “He did a marvelous, marvelous job for us for seven years.
“I think anytime, whether it’s (Florida State’s) Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp at Texas, Derek at Tennessee, even though we have to play, (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick and I went through a very similar situation (in the NFL). … Even though we have to compete against Derek at Tennessee, it’s a rivalry game for us and for them as well, that we’ll never lose respect for him and his family, what he’s done. You can compete in a game without hating somebody or losing respect for them.”
Mutual respect with Saban is expected, given their history together, but in a short time Dooley appears to have earned the same from the rest of the league coaches as well.
That doesn’t mean everybody will get along on Saturdays in the fall. But during a trying offseason for the SEC in the face of an expanding issue with agents, the ability of coaches to get along and cooperate could be critical.
“No question, there’s value,” Meyer said. “On game day, that’s a whole different animal. But we’re all in this profession together.
“For example, there’s something going on with all this agent stuff. We all have to work together to get this done. I have a lot of respect for the new coach at Tennessee, and I spent a lot of time talking to him in Destin (at the league’s spring meetings). You can tell he has everything in order. He’s a high-character guy, and that’s nice to see. I have a lot of respect for that coach.”