When looking back at the Derek Dooley era of Tennessee football, Vol fans will say it’s not hard at all to point out a plethora of mistakes made in those three years. But Dooley himself has spoken about his time in Knoxville, and he accepts that mistakes were made and claims he has nobody to blame but himself.
(Warning: Strong language ahead)
“It’s so easy to be angry and to blame everybody else for your failure,” Dooley said in an article written by Chris Vannini on CoachingSearch.com. “I could blame 8 million people. But the reality is it’s my failure. You have to accept that and learn from it and move on and not be angry at other people.
“When people fail, nobody really cares about your excuses. Nobody gives a shit. You have to, when you fail, accept that. You can’t make excuses. There were a million things I could have done differently to prevent it. Once you accept that, you’re better-equipped to move on. But you have to get to that point before you can do anything.”
Dooley earned a 15-21 record in his three seasons as head coach of the Vols. He was a paltry 4-19 in conference play and only beat the likes of Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Ole Miss in the SEC. Dooley’s Vol squads lost to every other SEC team they played, and they lost by wide margins in many of those contests.
But one of those losses in particular still stands out to Dooley to this day, and it’s one he says is his biggest mistake in his coaching career.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Don’t let the shit creep in.’ Shit can start creeping in, and you’re not really paying attention to it, you wake up one day, and you’ve got a bucket full,” Dooley stated. “I look back, I probably wasn’t as hard on them. I made excuses for them because they’re young, let’s work with them and help them. Compound that with, we had injuries. All that is sort of a firestorm brewing. It only hits you when it hits you.”
And for Dooley, it hit in 2011 when the Vols needed one win to become bowl eligible and had one last game to do so. Tennessee traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to take on a Wildcats squad that was without a starting quarterback and had little left to play for with a 4-7 record heading into the contest.
But, as Vol fans know, the expected blowout at the hands of the visiting Vols never happened. Instead, Kentucky, led by a wide receiver playing quarterback, found a way to win an ugly 10-7 game and sent the Vols home with a 5-7 record and no bowl berth.
“(That loss) is, 100 percent, my worst mistake, and I was the sole reason for that loss,” Dooley said. “It only hits you when it hits you, and when I walked out there in pregame, we’d just had an emotional win over Vandy, and everybody thought we were getting back to a bowl, can win seven, the whole deal.
“In pregame, I knew it wasn’t right. I could feel it. It was the worst, most surreal feeling in me. I’ll never forget it. Watching our team, I could see it. Everything I had done since the offseason, making excuses, looking the other way, brushing aside, we need these guys, it kind of all came to a head. It was a terrible, terrible loss. Our team wasn’t ready to play mentally and emotionally, and that was my fault.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Dooley would hide away from media and fans for months following the loss, then his third and final season in Knoxville saw the Vols sneak into the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time in years only to collapse at home in the second half against Florida.
That loss sent the rest of the season into a tailspin from which it could never recover, and Dooley’s last game as Tennessee’s head coach saw the Vols get handed a 41-18 loss in Nashville against Vanderbilt.
Dooley has been with the Dallas Cowboys since February of 2013, and he’s found success as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach over the last few seasons. But Vol fans won’t remember him for his successes in the NFL; to them, he’ll always be the coach that lost to Kentucky and took the football program to new lows.
But there’s one thing most Vol fans can agree with Dooley on, and that’s that the loss to Kentucky was the worst mistake he made while at Tennessee.