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July 23, 2010

Dooley fits the mold, but it's all about winning

MORE: SEC notes: Jefferson focused on leading Tigers

HOOVER, Ala. - Tennessee's Derek Dooley fits.

In style, manner and accent -- especially accent -- he fits the role of a SEC football coach.

And in his first six months on the job, he's done just about everything a rabid SEC fan would want his coach to do.

He assembled a solid recruiting class despite getting a late start, he has embraced Tennessee traditions and former coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer, refused to coddle prima-donna running back Bryce Brown and acted swiftly when a group of players were involved in a barroom brawl and dismissed starting strong safety Darren Myles and suspended two others from the team.

He's also instituted a "Vol For Life" program geared to produce good citizens as well as good football players.

"We've begun a new structure we call the 'VFL,' " Dooley said Thursday on Day 3 of SEC Media Days. "Everybody wants to play in the NFL, but we want to be a 'Vol For Life.'

"The program is centered around several components; character education is one of them, there's a life skills component, there's a growth component, there's a community-service component, spiritual growth and career-development component. I think over the course of two, three, four years you'll see tremendous change in how we're going to help our young people."

That's an admirable goal. But in two, three or four years, Tennessee fans had better be celebrating big wins over the likes of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, or Dooley's VFL will be SOL.

Dooley said that has been, well, duly noted.

"I know what the job's going to get measured on -- the success we have on Saturdays," he said.

That's where the uncertainty comes in. Dooley is a model representative for the program. He's committed to upgrading the football team's image and has high demands for players' behavior. He also hasn't been the source of any embarrassment, unlike predecessor Lane Kiffin. But like him or not, Kiffin was a sound game-day coach.

Dooley? Who knows?

His father, legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, certainly was, but winning isn't genetic. Just ask any Alabama fan who endured the Mike Shula years.

Indeed, some may question if Dooley would be Tennessee's coach had he another surname. Based on his 17-20 record in three seasons as coach at Louisiana Tech, that's a legitimate question. To his credit, Dooley seems to recoil just a bit when his father's name is brought up. Certainly, he wants to show he's his own man and coach.

"I would be a fool if I didn't reach out to him, someone who has had the success that he's had," Dooley said. "Certainly, I've done that and I'll continue to do that. But at the end of the day, I'll continue to shape the program that fits my personality."

The Volunteers need a shape shifter. Dooley is Tennessee's third coach in three seasons, the Vols are 12-13 in the past two seasons and they were picked fifth in the SEC East in a preseason media poll. The program is in such a mess that any reasonable observer would give Dooley a pass on this season.

Players are trying to sell the idea that their recent tribulations will work in their favor.

"The team's chemistry is very high," senior linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "We've obviously had a lot of things happen to us in the past three years, and it's just caused us to get together as a team and say, 'You know what? The only people that aren't going to change are the players in the room.' So we just try to come closer as a team."

Chemistry may be high, but the talent level isn't. Six wins would be a solid season. But Dooley isn't cowering. He isn't making grandiose promises, but neither is he conceding the future to Florida and Alabama, which currently are dominating the SEC.

"Every time there's a program that's dominating in a certain time, everybody thinks, 'Oh, my God, nobody can catch 'em.' But over time, teams do," Dooley said. "What we can't do is sit there and go, 'Florida and Alabama are winning right now. Oh, my God, we've got to do what they do.'

"We're not going to do that. We feel like we have a formula that's going to be successful in this program, and we've got to keep our focus on what we do because if we're worried about what they're doing at Florida, we're not paying attention to what we're doing. We've got to worry about ourselves first. I think that's when you can be able to compete at that level."

Hey, it wasn't that long ago that Florida was looking up at Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC East standings, and Alabama finished fourth in the West just four years ago.

Some would contend that Florida and Alabama are better-equipped for fast turnarounds because their states produce more talent. The state of Tennessee doesn't turn out nearly as many high-quality prospects. Tennessee has produced a combined 16 four- and five-star prospects in the past three recruiting cycles; Florida produced more than three times as many in the past cycle alone (51), while Alabama produced just three fewer last year.

Dooley doesn't see that as an issue, though.

"I do think that there's a tremendous, unique perspective in recruiting that we have that none of the other institutions have," he said. "We border eight states at Tennessee. You go about three to five hours around Knoxville and there is a tremendous amount of talent.

"So even though a lot of people say we don't have a great recruiting base, I don't really see it that way."

Clearly, Dooley doesn't see any limitations and isn't seeking any excuses that would keep him from succeeding.

That's another quality every fan wants from a coach.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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