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January 15, 2010

Dooley just another Kiffin? Not even close

MORE: Who's in, who's out: Rivals.com Coaching Carousel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- He's a young coach with an NFL background who won a national championship as an assistant and has a famous father.

But make no mistake about it: Derek Dooley is no Lane Kiffin.

"If you're going to look for sound bites or different things from me that are going to attack other programs or disparage people, that's just not how I am," Dooley said Friday night at a news conference introducing him as Tennessee's new coach. "I'm worried about Tennessee. I'm worried about what we need to do to get our program going. I'm going to always keep my focus on that.

"I think if you're worrying about somebody else and what other people are doing, you're not taking care of your own house."

As one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of Tennessee's athletic program wound down, that was just the message Volunteers fans wanted to hear.

The week actually couldn't have started out much better. Depth-shy Tennessee upset top-ranked Kansas in men's basketball on Sunday, and Kiffin was on his way to landing a top-five recruiting class after leading the Vols to a 7-6 record in his first year as coach.

But Pete Carroll had made the bombshell decision over the weekend that he was leaving USC to coach the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, and Kiffin -- a former offensive coordinator under Carroll at USC -- announced Tuesday night at a hastily scheduled news conference that he was leaving Tennessee to replace Carroll.

Thus began Tennessee's week from hell.

"It's something like I'd never experienced," Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "It's definitely been a whirlwind, to say the least. Everything happened so fast. We heard so many rumors.

"When Coach Kiffin left for USC, we didn't hear about it until we heard it on ESPN. We heard it the same time as the fans did. There were a lot of hurt feelings.''

The next few days would cause even more bruised egos around Tennessee, which prides itself on being one of the nation's top programs. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and Duke coach David Cutcliffe were mentioned as front-runners for the Tennessee job at one point in the week. All withdrew their names from consideration.

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton wanted to have a coach in place by the end of the week as the Vols attempted to salvage what was left of their once-promising recruiting class. That led him to Dooley, whose bloodlines -- his dad is former longtime Georgia coach Vince Dooley -- and background apparently made up for his lackluster head-coaching record.

Dooley, 41, worked as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator on Nick Saban's staff at LSU, where he won a national championship ring in 2003. He followed Saban to the NFL's Miami Dolphins, where he spent two seasons as tight ends coach. But his only experience as a head coach is a 17-20 record in three seasons at Louisiana Tech, including a 4-8 mark this season.

His hiring isn't likely to appease Tennessee fans who held out hope that they could lure Muschamp from Austin, where he already has been selected as Mack Brown's eventual successor.

Dooley, who attended Virginia as a walk-on football player and later earned a law degree, pointed out that he could have chosen to follow Saban to Alabama three years ago. He instead decided to begin his own head-coaching career and took his lumps at a program without much of a winning tradition; Dooley led Tech to an Independence Bowl triumph in 2008, its first bowl victory in 30 years.

"While I'm sure had I stayed with Nick, I might have been a more popular candidate for this job now. I'm certain that I'm a better and more qualified candidate by doing what I did the last three years," said Dooley, who also was Louisiana Tech's athletic director; he was the only dual coach/AD in the FBS ranks.

Dooley's teams might not have won many games the past three seasons, but he certainly delivered a winning performance at his introductory news conference.

In his almost 14 months on the job, Kiffin gained notice for needling Florida coach Urban Meyer, committing a handful of secondary recruiting violations and throwing a major scare into eventual national champion Alabama. But after getting jilted this week, most Vols fans wanted a no-nonsense guy who honored the Tennessee traditions they believe Kiffin failed to embrace.

Dooley delivered on all counts. Two minutes into his speech, he already had mentioned running through the "T," the checkerboard end zone at Neyland Stadium and the playing of "Rocky Top." Heck, he even has an 8-year-old son named Peyton.

As the son of a former longtime SEC coach, he certainly realizes what Tennessee sees as its rightful place in the college football landscape.

"It didn't take me long as a youngster to understand Tennessee is the essence of college football," Dooley said.

The complexion of Dooley's staff remains uncertain, but it seems unlikely it will have as much star power as Kiffin's crew, which included his father -- former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin -- and recruiting whiz Ed Orgeron. That could cause a problem in the next two weeks as Dooley tries to prevent Tennessee's recruiting class from falling apart. How many four- and five-star prospects are going to be wowed by a guy with a losing record from a WAC school?

Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker admits he didn't know much about Dooley before this week. When Dooley's name surfaced as a candidate, Walker had a 20-minute chat with Houston Tuminello, a friend and former Louisiana Tech receiver. That conversation made Walker feel much better about the situation.

"He just said he's a really good guy," Walker said. "He did tell me he modeled himself after Nick Saban. That's something that's good."

Tennessee fans would be overjoyed if Dooley develops into another Saban. They'll probably be satisfied if he merely isn't another Lane Kiffin.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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