Dooley tells media, fanbase that program is stable
Losing games, losing coaches, losing players, losing recruits. Derek Dooley wants to reassure Tennessee football fans he isn't losing focus.
In his first visit with the media in the 37 days since the 10-7 loss at Kentucky, Dooley on Tuesday addressed a number of troubling topics — and reiterated what he considers some positive ones.
The latest stress for UT fans is the departure of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who left for similar positions at the University of Washington.
Eric Russell's vacancy also has yet to be filled.
"Like any coaching change, we'll use it as an opportunity to get better,'' Dooley said.
"We're in the early stages of the search to get the right fit.''
The 2012 recruiting class lost two junior-college commitments before Christmas and two prep commitments since the new year.
Freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett, one of the prizes of the 2011 class, has been released to transfer closer to home in Michigan.
Another receiver on everyone's mind, All-SEC sophomore Da'Rick Rogers, has not been suspended and "is fine," Dooley said.
As for the public angst since the disheartening loss to Kentucky ended the season, Dooley said it was "fair" for passionate fans to have questions.
"It's understandable why there could be a perception that it's not good right now,'' Dooley said. "But I'm not concerned at all about what's real.
"Because what's real is this program has been put in the last 22 months on as good a foundation as we could ever do.
"I can only control what goes on inside the building. I think if you talk to Justin and Peter and Eric and DeAnthony, they'll all feel the same way, that we're doing the right things, we're heading in the right direction and success is going to come and the worst is behind us.''
What's immediately ahead is hiring coaches and solidifying recruits.
Dooley said he has had "a lot of conversations with a lot of people,'' but that he won't rush a hire.
He praised the contributions of the four departed assistants and said bringing former Vol Jay Graham aboard as running backs coach was a "no-brainer.''
The new defensive coordinator should be aware of the challenges of the SEC, but Dooley otherwise didn't want to limit his options. Among names mentioned by various media outlets are Kevin Steele, the Clemson coordinator who is a former UT player and assistant coach, and former Miami head coach Randy Shannon.
"It's Tennessee,'' Dooley said. "It's unbelievable the amount of interest coaches have in wanting to come here.
"They understand it's a great time to come to Tennessee, certainly a much better time than it was two years ago when we came to Tennessee.
"All the coaches know that, especially on the defensive side. We finished 28th in the country on defense, we've got nine starters returning, we got a great midyear signee (tackle Darrington Sentimore) to boot. That's appealing.''
Dooley said he has never been more excited about an offseason and that conversations with players indicate leadership and team chemistry should be on the uptick as the roster becomes more mature.
Included in those conversations is quarterback Tyler Bray, who has taken considerable public heat since the Kentucky loss for a perceived lack of total commitment.
"He was crushed after the game,'' Dooley said. "We had probably a two-hour talk a few days after, just reflecting, and it was an awesome dialogue.
"Adversity sharpens your focus and allows you to acknowledge some things you need to work on.
"It's going to help us as coaches, it's going to help Tyler and it's going to help a lot of our players.''
With national signing day about a month away, locking down some of Bray's future teammates is paramount. Coaching transitions make it more difficult, but are an annual event.
Dooley has been personally delivering that message to recruits.
"The important thing is Tennessee hasn't changed,'' he said.
"The things they fell in love with when they got here and saw it, how we're running the program, what we've done the last 22 months, the new facility, the support, the game-day excitement, none of that has changed.
"We have the resources and the attraction that's going to get some high quality coaches. ... Just stay patient.''