Only a few sleepless hours had passed since an embarrassing loss at Vanderbilt University in Nashville cemented his third consecutive losing season when University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley sat down for a meeting with his boss.
He knew what was coming.
Dooley was relieved of his duties Sunday morning, ending his three-year tenure with a 15-21 overall record and a 4-19 mark in the SEC.
“He handled it as you would expect — in a very mature, respectful and appreciative manner,” said UT athletic director Dave Hart said during a Sunday news conference at Neyland Stadium.
Dooley chose to go ahead with his weekly coach’s television program, where his grim commentary on the game was juxtaposed with the breaking news about his firing crawling along the bottom of the screen.
Dooley declined the opportunity to coach the final game of the season against the University of Kentucky on Saturday, saying he didn’t want his presence to be a distraction to the players. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as interim coach.
Dooleyisms: Memorable sayings from former UT head coach Derek Dooley
Hart said Dooley, 44, left the program in better shape than it was three years ago when he replaced Lane Kiffin, who bolted for the University of Southern California after one season in Knoxville.
“Derek Dooley did indeed improve this football program. There’s no question about that,” Hart said. “He was given a pretty short stick to take into battle.”
Hart said he would begin a search for the program’s next coach immediately, focusing on candidates with head coaching experience who understood the difficulty of competing in the cutthroat Southeastern Conference.
Dooley’s tenure was marked by close losses in big games and humbling defeats to programs that the Vols used to routinely beat.
UT was expected to be significantly improved this year but faltered in the second half against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Dooley finished his tenure 0-15 against opponents ranked in the Top 25.
After a last-second loss at South Carolina on Oct. 27, Dooley dubbed the final four games “the second season,” and many believed he could save his job with a 4-0 finish.
But the Vols allowed 721 yards of total offense in a last-second victory against Troy University, squandered a big lead in a loss to the University of Missouri and then were embarrassed Saturday at Vanderbilt, 41-18.
The Vols dropped to 0-7 in the SEC for the first time in school history, losing to Vanderbilt in Nashville for the first time since 1982.
“I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future,” Dooley in a statement released by the university on Sunday. “Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program.
“During the last 34 months, I’ve given my all for Tennessee, and our family appreciates all this university and the Knoxville community has given us.”
Raw video: Dave Hart press conference on Dooley's firing
Hart, who is searching for UT’s fourth head coach in six years, said he wanted to give Dooley every opportunity to succeed before embarking on a change.
“This is not what I wanted, and this is not what we needed relative to stability,” Hart said.
Even so, Hart said that Dooley, the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, understood his fate. Hart’s late father also was a college football coach and athletic director.
“Derek grew up in this business, as did I,” Hart said. “This is a results-based profession and you cannot ignore the results at the end of the day.”
Dooley is owed $5 million as part of a buyout to be paid monthly over the next four years. Eight assistant coaches are working under multiyear contracts and could cost between $645,000 and $4.3 million if they are not retained by the new head coach.
“Yes, coaches are paid well,” Hart said. “But they’re human beings with spouses and kids. It’s tough. Today’s a tough day.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.