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Dooley inherited broken program, but never got Vols over hump

Derek Dooley said this spring that several "anchors" had held down his Tennessee program. From coaching changes to player attrition, Dooley's Vols were constantly fighting an uphill battle to regain their place atop the SEC.

What Tennessee fans likely realized, particularly after Saturday's 41-18 blowout loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt, is that Dooley himself was an anchor -- a coach whose inability to push Tennessee over the hump ultimately defined his entire tenure in Knoxville.

Dooley, who was fired Sunday after three years at Tennessee, inherited a program in a state of disarray when he accepted the head coaching job in January 2010. Dooley replaced Lane Kiffin, who only one year earlier had replaced longtime coach Phillip Fulmer, making Dooley the Vols' third coach in as many seasons. Preaching a character-driven approach, Dooley attempted to resurrect a program that was accustomed to prominence but -- for one reason or another -- had stumbled into mediocrity.

One could argue Dooley returned internal stability to the Tennessee program, but the on-field product never followed suit. Dooley came agonizingly close, but ultimately failed to get his team over the hump.

There was the near-upset of No. 12 LSU in Baton Rouge in 2010, when the clock hit zero to signify a victory by unranked Tennessee before the Vols were flagged for having 13 players on the field. The penalty gave the Tigers the one extra play they needed to punch in a game-winning touchdown.

There was the 2010 Music City Bowl, when North Carolina was flagged for the same penalty on the final play of the game. The Tar Heels got another play and kicked a field goal to send the game into overtime, where the Vols ultimately lost.

There was the 2011 season finale against Kentucky, where Dooley's Vols suffered the program's first defeat to the Wildcats in 26 years. Because of injuries, Kentucky had played a wide receiver at quarterback.

Then there was the loss to No. 18 Florida this September, where the then No. 23 Vols, ranked for the first time in four seasons, deflated with ESPN's College GameDay visiting and allowed 24 unanswered points in a loss to the Gators.

So many opportunities, so many disappointments.

It's true that Dooley inherited a mess. The Vols were a combined 12-13 in the two years before he arrived in Knoxville. But the coach's ensuing tenure produced uncomfortably similar results. Dooley posted a 15-21 overall record while finishing only 4-19 in SEC play. Perhaps most jarring, the once-proud Vols never defeated a ranked opponent (0-15) with Dooley at the helm.

The question now is where the Vols go from here. Dooley was hired by ex-Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton and was reportedly the Vols' fifth or sixth option in their coaching search after Kiffin's departure. Tennessee's current AD, Dave Hart, said at a press conference Sunday that previous head coaching experience is "critically important" in the program's next hire. That may mean a big-name assistant such as Alabama's Kirby Smart is not on Hart's short list. Current ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden has been linked in the rumor mill to this and other openings.

Tennessee can't afford to hire an unproven coach again. The Volunteer program has been in a state of transition since Fulmer's exit in 2008. Tennessee took a chance when it hired Dooley away from Louisiana Tech, where the coach produced a 17-20 record in three seasons. It's unlikely Hart would gamble on a similar type of coaching project.

Ultimately, Tennessee's next coach will be tasked with lifting the team back into prominence while putting his mark on the program. Dooley had many opportunities, but was never able to accomplish that in Knoxville.

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