When Derek Dooley first sat before a group of reporters in Destin, Fla., earlier this month, no fewer than 24 hours had passed since Ohio State’s Jim Tressel resigned amid the tumult that had engulfed the storied program.
At the time, it was the latest example of a negative story in college football that just wouldn’t disappear. The drip, drip, drip of information inevitably ended with a splash, and it was something the Tennessee coach was fully cognizant of from the beginning.
“Stories aren’t going away like they used to,” Dooley said. “There are so many media outlets now, it just keeps coming. What used to be a one-day story or a three-day story now is a four-month story and then what that does is it incites constant discussion on the issues.”
In the 17 days since then, the North Carolina football program received its long-awaited Notice of Inquiry for its agent scandal; star quarterback Terrelle Pryor stepped away from Ohio State after more and more information leaked about his role in the numerous violations levied against the program; the Tennessee athletic department and its infamous former coaches went before the Committee on Infractions; and one of the top defensive players in the country, Oregon’s Cliff Harris, was suspended for the season opener after he was caught speeding in a rental car, which also happened to be paid for by a university employee.
While NCAA president Mark Emmert, speaking at the SEC spring meetings, said it’s apparent that college football has an image problem, other SEC coaches denied that today’s issues are any worse than those of 20 or 30 years ago.
Dooley’s opinion fell somewhere in between.
“To say there’s been a bad perception out there in the last year, how can you argue it’s not been?” Dooley asked rhetorically. “I’m not here to assign any blame. That’s what’s happened out there. What it does is it reminds you of the responsibility of what you have.
“It’s hard to blame the media for important things that happen. You make your own bed.”
At a place like UT, which was synonymous in the past with a flurry of negative headlines during the offseason, Dooley said he tries to take a proactive approach whenever bad news breaks.
Dooley drew top marks from his bosses for how he handled last summer’s brawl that involved multiple football players at a Cumberland Avenue bar. By the time former men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton called to inform the vacationing Dooley about the fracas, he was already on his way back to Knoxville. Soon thereafter, Dooley doled out punishments and addressed the media in a hastily arranged news conference.
Last October, when news broke that defensive end Jacques Smith was arrested and charged with simple assault, Dooley instructed UT spokesman Jimmy Stanton to read Smith’s police report over a Sunday teleconference at a time when details were sparse on the incident.
“I understand that things don’t go away unless you at least present enough to get it to go away,” Dooley said. “I can’t speak for the guys that have been in the business a lot longer than me.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was one of many SEC coaches to stress that the positive stories in college football don’t receive as much play as the negative ones. Mullen didn’t exactly have a solution, as he conceded to the realities of the 24-hour news cycle.
“I guess that doesn’t always sell. The negatives are the bigger stories instead of all the positive,” Mullen said. “It’s tragic sometimes. People don’t understand how many lives it actually affects.”
Dooley said he thinks the majority of college football coaches are “trying like heck” to conduct their programs “the right way.” He considers himself a member of that group, but there’s only so much a football coach can do to prop up the image of his program.
The rest is out of his hands.
“I go to bed every night worrying about a headline on our program,” Dooley said. “I know how damaging it can be.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble.