Ernest Hemingway wrote, “you create your own luck.” Is that the case for Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, or is he the victim of bad luck completely beyond his control?
Dooley’s Volunteers fell to 0-5 in SEC play with Saturday’s 38-35 loss to South Carolina, the third straight season UT has faced such a deficit in conference. Of course, Tennessee has also had the misfortune of facing the SEC elite in the first half of its conference schedule every season under Dooley.
Critics and the frustrated might argue that Tennessee should be the SEC elite, and it’s a valid argument. After all, UT was long the benchmark for SEC greatness. But then, Dooley stepped into a bad situation. Phil Fulmer’s tenure limped to a historically unsuccessful finish just four years ago, then wunderkind replacement Lane Kiffin spurned the program after just one season, leaving Tennessee scrambling after 2009 campaign.
Building an elite football program after the steady decline Tennessee was on takes time. And the Vols are close. Today is a great example. UT had an opportunity to beat a top 20 SEC foe, on the road. While South Carolina was obviously hindered with the injury of offensive leader Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecock defense is what has made that team’s bones. And the Volunteer offense gouged it for 35 points.
Tyler Bray tossed for four touchdowns on the stingy South Carolina defense, and lined up behind center in the fourth quarter with a chance to win. But then…
Dead man’s hand. Jadeveon Clowney, who had been bottled up much of the day from an impressive effort by the Tennessee offensive line, got to Bray to force a fumble that sealed yet another loss to a ranked team. Dooley has yet to beat one, the victim of various bad breaks. Last season the Vols were threatening to knock off eventual SEC East champion and nationally ranked Georgia, but lost Bray in the second half — and for much of the season.
Had Bray not been unavailable for the second half of the 2011 campaign, the Vols likely win a few more games, including the streak-ending defeat to Kentucky, and reach the postseason. Any hot seat for Dooley probably isn’t happening. But as it stands, Tennessee went 5-7 and missed the postseason for the second time in four years. A cynic may contend the misfortune of Bray’s injury might have been combated had Dooley had a more suitable replacement ready for such an occurrence. It depends on perspective, but the loss of Bray is undeniably bad luck.
The players haven’t quit on Dooley. UT is playing hard against ranked foes like South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Keeping the locker room is a positive for Dooley, but is it enough to save his job? UT needs to finish at least 3-1 to reach the postseason, but finally gets a break in that the schedule becomes much more manageable. Is a 7-5 finish and the Music City Bowl sufficient?
Calls for a new head coach are loud and prevalent. Specific names are even being bandied about. Noted Tennessee fan, media figure and author of On Rocky Top Clay Travis has headed a bandwagon for UT to pursue former Hooters fry cook and current Monday Night Football broadcaster Jon Gruden. With the Vols playing upper echelon close, is now the time to reverse course?