Derek Dooley on defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
Tennessee's Oct. 30, 2012 practice
Derek Dooley is no dummy. When he had to hire a new defensive coordinator last January, he knew what was on the line.
He knew growing pains would be inevitable.
He knew his offense had the potential to be special.
He knew 2012, his third season, probably would be a make-or-break year for his regime at Tennessee.
And yet he chose not to play it safe. He dialed in a new scheme that required his players to almost start from scratch.
"There would be probably a lot less growing pains if you kept it real simple,'' Dooley said Tuesday in reflection.
"Would we have been playing better? Probably so.''
Growing pains. A wind gust here and there? A few pea-sized hailstones?
What has happened instead is the equivalent of Hurricane Sandy.
Dooley said he was thinking big picture and long term last winter when he had to replace defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who took a similar position at Washington.
In his two seasons at UT, Wilcox did a nice job with a limited roster. In 2011 the Vols finished 28th nationally in total defense, allowing 340 yards a game.
Dooley interviewed several coordinator-level candidates but picked Sal Sunseri, the linebackers coach at Alabama, to install a new 3-4 base scheme.
He felt a comfort level philosophically with Sunseri, whom he knew from the Nick Saban coaching family.
Ten months later, "comfort level" is a condition no one uses to describe Tennessee's defense, administration or fan base.
"There were going to be growing pains,'' Dooley said Tuesday, "no matter who you brought in because it's new.
"There were more factors that went into it than just the scheme.
"You always make decisions based on what happened last. You try to correct what happened last.''
What Dooley wanted to correct was that he felt Wilcox's brand of defense wasn't disruptive enough or physical enough to prevail in the SEC.
So far, however, the projected correction has blown up in his face.
In 2011, through five SEC games, the Vols allowed 28.4 points and 370 yards.
In 2012, through five SEC games, the Vols allowed 42.2 points and 522 yards.
If Dooley had chosen another course of action last winter, who's to say how things would have played out.
Would a system more familiar to the returning players have eliminated or at least minimized the plague of gaping holes for opposing runners or the easy pickings for quarterbacks and receivers?
On a personal level, would it have allowed Dooley to ride a prolific offense off the hot seat to a more secure perch?
"I've always tried to make the right decision for the program long term,'' Dooley said.
"That doesn't mean
you're not trying to win short term. But I wanted to get somebody and some system that when we get this thing going, we don't want to make another change.''
Getting this thing going has proved tougher than Tennessee's fan base expected. We can only guess what timetable athletic director Dave Hart is seeing.
Last winter, Dooley rolled the dice. He didn't take the safest course. He was thinking long term.
Now there's a predicament. The short-term results have been such a mess, there might not even be a long term.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.