Aside from roster management issues that he’d rather discuss when his players return to campus next week, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley discussed several things during a Tuesday morning state-of-the-program press conference in the Neyland Thompson Sports Center.
Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley
“I didn’t know we’d get this big of crowd,” Dooley said before addressing a room filled to capacity with reporters. “(A reporter) reminded me it had been 37 days since I’ve met with you guys. I know y’all wanted to visit with me about a few issues.”
A few? At least.
The Vols have lost four assistant coaches — including highly regarded defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon to Washington on Monday — since a season-ending, 10-7 loss at Kentucky on Nov. 26, and only South Carolina running backs coach Jay Graham has been hired to fill the void.
Dooley said three of the departures — Wilcox, Sirmon and Washington State-bound tight ends and special teams coach Eric Russell — are from the Pacific Northwest and had “good opportunities” to move their families closer to home.
“I think I was counting today seven schools in the SEC alone are going through coordinator changes, so that’s kind of the nature of our industry,” Dooley said. “I said all along that when people are wanting your coaches, despite what a lot of people think, we’re obviously doing something right. All three of those guys came from the Pacific Northwest, so it was a chance for them to get back home, and I understand it and I really appreciate the work they gave us the last two years. They put their heart and soul into this program.
“The program is significantly better today than it was when we all came here 22 months ago, and those guys played a big part of it.”
But Dooley added that UT now has a chance to bolster a program that he fully expects to put a better product on the field next season — his third season with the Vols.
“Like any coaching change, we use it as an opportunity to get better, and that’s what we’re going to do here,” Dooley said. “As much as the good things those guys brought, there are areas where we can improve, and so we’ll begin that search to try to get the right fit, and we’re in the early stages of that.”
Dooley said he’d like to put a “time frame” on hiring replacements, but he settled for now on stating that he’d like to make the best hires as soon as they could be made.
“It’s really complex, given the recruiting,” Dooley said. “You have to invest time in the recruiting. Some teams are still playing in the NFL. So it’s really hard to say. Certainly, the quicker the better, but what we’re not going to do is compromise who we get to try to hurry it up.”
Dooley, when asked whether he’d had “formal” or “informal” discussions with potential hires — and by “formal,” the reporter meant whether any face-to-face meetings had taken place — simply said he’s had good conversations to this point.
“You start gathering information,” the coach said. “Of course, it’s Tennessee. It’s unbelievable the amount of interest coaches have in wanting to come here. I think they understand that it’s a great time to come to Tennessee. It’s certainly a much better time than two years ago when we came to Tennessee. All the coaches out there know that, especially on defense.
“We finished 28th in the nation on defense and we’ve got nine starters returning and we’ve got a great midyear signee to boot. That’s pretty appealing.”
Dooley didn’t say whether his future defensive coordinator would be allowed to fill the other defensive assistant’s position, and the head coach was careful to avoid stating a preference on schematic pre-requisites.
“You know, I’d hate to sit here and box myself in,” Dooley said, “because when you start this dialogue, what sometimes you think you want (is one thing), and the all of a sudden somebody appears and you go, ‘Gosh, this is a pretty good hire right here.’ So I don’t really (know). You know, I have some ideas, but the most important one is, ‘What can help us win the most next year.’ And that’s going to be my focus from the beginning. I certainly want somebody who understands the challenges of the SEC, because it is a challenging league, and there’s a lot of different challenges here than there are in other leagues.”
“I wouldn’t say we’re going to do radically different, but we were pretty multiple in what we did (with Wilcox), so I think our personnel can fit to a lot of different things.”
As for whether he’d lose any more coaches in the coming weeks, Dooley matter-of-factly said he didn’t expect any but couldn’t guarantee anything.
“You know what? It can happen tomorrow. We could have three more get offers,” Dooley said. “I know this: I’ve always said that probably the toughest month as a head coach is January, because the coaches are free agents and the recruits are free agents, and it’s (constantly changing). And that’s how it goes.
“But that’s OK.”
Dooley didn’t disclose how much he did or didn’t fight to retain Wilcox and Sirmon, but he said the timing of their departures — a little more than one month from National Signing Day — wasn’t surprising in any way.
“This is really when all this happens,” Dooley said. “It happens after bowls. There’s a lot of different time periods. It happens right after the season, when there’s movement. Then it happens around that New Year time when the bowls are over, and then there’s going to be another, you know the NFL season ending, there’s another spike and then there’s another spike after signing day. The whole coaching movement, the profession is from like Dec. 1 to the end of February. That’s when it happens, and it happens all over the company.
“Sometimes you hate losing them. Sometimes it’s good you lose them because turnover’s a healthy thing. Either way, it’s a great chance to say, ‘Hey, where can we get better through this,’ and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Dooley discussed several more topics in a press conference that lasted more than 30 minutes, and govols247 will continue to post notes and quotes throughout the day.
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247