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Tennessee fans may not know it, but Dooley is a coaching upgrade


He wore a dark suit and an orange tie. His last name is famous in college football circles. That's where the similarities end between the introductions of Lane Kiffin as Tennessee's 21st football coach and Derek Dooley as Tennessee's 22nd.

Back away from your message boards, Volunteers. Forget Dooley's record at Louisiana Tech. It shouldn't take long before you realize you've upgraded.

In December 2008, Kiffin sounded like Peter Brady during that very special puberty episode. He cracked about singing Rocky Top after beating Florida in Gainesville. During the next year, Kiffin proceeded to turn his back on every respected Tennessee tradition in an attempt to turn the Volunteers into USC-Knoxville. If he could have, Kiffin probably would have dumped Rocky Top in favor of Fight On. So, given the chance to coach the USC, Kiffin understandably accepted the offer and blew town.

Dooley didn't make many promises Friday, but he did glance over his shoulder at General Robert Neyland's seven maxims before he spoke. Kiffin never once took part in the traditional pregame recitation of the legendary coach's maxims. Presumably, Kiffin only aped Pete Carroll's traditions. Dooley, whose father, Vince, started his share of traditions at Georgia, understands his fellow Southerners are sometimes sentimental for good reason.

"I'm glad to see I believed in everything up there," Dooley said. "Thank God the general knew what he's doing. He was something special."

Unlike his predecessor, Dooley understands each school has its own culture. "I said from the beginning, this isn't my program," Dooley said. "It's been here a long time. It's going to be here long after I am. The worst thing you can do is come do a canned setup anywhere you go."

Forgive the indulgence, but these are those seven maxims. Whether you cheer for Tennessee, Alabama, Texas or Boise State, if you know football, you'll recognize that these are the keys to winning on the gridiron.

1. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.

2. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way -- SCORE.

3. If at first the game -- or the breaks -- go against you, don't let up ... put on more steam.

4. Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead and our ball game.

5. Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle ... for this is the WINNING EDGE.

6. Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.

7. Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

It all sounds simple -- something every coach should know -- but it means something more in Tennessee.

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So forget the fact that Dooley went 17-20 at Louisiana Tech. The degree of difficulty there is much higher than at Tennessee; Dooley's 8-5 season with an Independence Bowl win in 2008 is the equivalent of Tennessee winning an SEC title. Or, if this makes you feel better, remember that Kiffin had a 5-15 career record as a head coach when Tennessee hired him.

Like Kiffin, Dooley was born with a silver whistle in his mouth. Unlike Kiffin, Dooley spit his out. Dooley could have gone to Georgia and played for his dad. Instead, he walked on at Virginia. Dooley could have entered coaching after college and ridden his father's coattails. Instead, he went to law school.

Dooley began his working life in 1994 as an associate in the civil litigation department of the Atlanta office of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough. According to Ken Millwood, who was Dooley's boss at the firm, Dooley and his fellow associates did the grunt work. They may have dreamed of impassioned speeches that swayed juries, but they typically buried their heads in books, looking up precedents more senior attorneys could use for their cases.

"An associate's life is hard," Millwood told "You work long hours. You're expected to do many tasks -- and it's not the glamour work. ... You don't get to do some of the more flashy stuff."

Basically, Dooley was the legal equivalent of a graduate assistant. He wanted to be the head coach.

"You could tell he wanted to do more," Millwood said. "He wanted to do the stand-up and the trial work, which, in a big firm, is hard for an entry-level guy to do."

Millwood had Dooley argue one discovery motion before a judge. Dooley did well, and Millwood insists his choice of associates had nothing to do with the fact that the judge's son played football at Georgia.

Before long, Millwood realized Dooley longed for something different. "It became clear early on," Millwood said, "that his heart was in coaching."

So Millwood wasn't surprised when Dooley came to him in 1996 with the news that he planned to give up his lucrative job. "We overpay young lawyers, unfortunately," Millwood said. "Still do." That's never been a problem for young coaches. Dooley's salary as a grad assistant at Georgia barely broke five figures. Meanwhile, his fiancée toiled away in medical school.

It didn't take Dooley long to impress in his second career. He moved on to coach receivers at Southern Methodist, and in 2000, Nick Saban hired Dooley to join his staff at LSU as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. During his two years as the Tigers' recruiting coordinator, Dooley helped land Chad Lavalais, Joseph Addai, Rudy Niswanger and the rest of the core of LSU's 2003 BCS title team.

Dooley stayed with Saban through a two-year stint with the Miami Dolphins. Dooley flirted with the idea of joining Saban at Alabama, but Dooley felt he could learn more by -- to use an attorney's term -- hanging out his own shingle. Dooley understands now that if he'd stayed with Saban, he'd probably be viewed with the same reverence as Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, another Saban acolyte who was approached about the Tennessee job before Dooley.

"I'm sure, had I stayed with Nick, that I might have been a more popular candidate for this job now," Dooley said. "I am certain that I'm a better and a more qualified candidate by doing what I did in the last three years."

In 2007, Muschamp -- or at least the idea of Muschamp -- went by a different name: Gene Chizik. Instead of staying in the incubator that is the Texas defensive coordinator's chair, Chizik went to Iowa State, where he went 5-19 in two seasons. When he was hired at Auburn last year, plenty of us doubted him. Then Chizik went 8-5 and scared the hell out of the eventual national champ on Black Friday.

So maybe there is something to be learned by tilting at windmills as a first-time head coach. Dooley certainly had a challenge at Louisiana Tech. Terry Bradshaw was not walking through that door, and the best players in the state were locks to sign with LSU. That left Dooley fighting for the leftovers with Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs played in the WAC, where their average road trip was 1,754 miles. When they weren't playing WAC teams, the Bulldogs were getting stomped by Auburn or LSU to earn a fat paycheck to keep the athletic department afloat.

Dooley could have reamed his athletic director for that, except for the past two seasons, Dooley was the athletic director. So while he tried to convince football players to come to Ruston, he also had to worry about the women's basketball and baseball budgets. Of course, Dooley's dual role did have one benefit. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton joked Friday that he "got the AD's permission at the same time" he contacted the coach.

That was about as rowdy as Dooley's introductory press conference got. Dooley didn't call out any conference rivals. He didn't even bite when a reporter asked him if he'd call USC's mid-term recruits and beg them not to attend class. Kiffin's recruiting coordinator, Ed Orgeron, made that call to Tennessee's mid-term recruits on the night he, Kiffin and Kiffin's father, Monte, bolted Knoxville. "If you're going to look for sound bites and things from me that are going to attack other programs and disparage people, that's just not how I am," Dooley said. "Look, 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. When you worry about somebody else and what other people are doing, then you're not taking care of your own house."

Dooley has plenty to take care of in his new house. He must put out the dumpster fire Kiffin left blazing. He must salvage the recruiting class. He must calm the nerves of a fan base that expected a big-name hire, not just a big-last-name hire. He won't do any of that by focusing on the past.

"We've got plenty to be feeling good about in this program, and that's what we should focus on," he said. "The times of worrying about what happened are over."

Dooley understands his new program has endured a traumatic past 15 months. He understands his players have watched one coach get fired and watched another walk away. He also understands they can learn from their travails.

"If you think this is as hard as it gets in life, look out," Dooley said. "Because life is tough. You're going to get knocked down a bunch. The quicker you learn to deal with how you react to it, dust your britches off and move on, then the quicker you're going to lead to happiness."

Did he just say britches? Yes, he did. He'll fit in just fine.