KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has fired head football coach Derek Dooley.
The school confirmed the news via a release on Sunday morning and vice chancellor and director of athletics Dave Hart will address the media at the University of Tennessee on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET.
Hart will immediately begin the search for the 23rd head coach in program history.
Dooley’s firing comes on the heels of an embarrassing, 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday night, a loss that guaranteed the Vols’ third consecutive losing season under Dooley. The Vols are 15-21 under Dooley, and worse, have become irrelevant in the Southeastern Conference, having posted a 4-19 record in league games under Dooley’s watch. Tennessee hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent (0-15) in Dooley's tenure.
"I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future," Dooley said in a short statement released by Tennessee Sunday morning. "Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program."
Conventional wisdom suggested that Dooley might be able to survive if the Vols were able to beat Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to finish the season 7-5 and claim a bowl berth. But the way the Vols’ defense has been playing—it has given up an SEC record 38 or more points in its last seven games—that didn’t appear likely.
On Saturday night, the Vols imploded against Vanderbilt, which moved Hart to act.
"We very much appreciate the effort and energy that Derek Dooley and his staff have poured into our football program at the University of Tennessee," Hart said via a release on Sunday morning. "Derek and I met early this morning, and I informed him that I believed a change in leadership, despite the positive contributions he has made to the overall health of the program, was in the best long-term interests of Tennessee football. We will immediately begin the search for the best possible candidate to assume this leadership role."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as the interim head coach when the Vols play Kentucky on Saturday.
The question now is who will Tennessee hire to replace Dooley? In recent years, the program has been entrusted to unproven coaches. Even Phillip Fulmer, who replaced the popular Johnny Majors and won the national championship in 1998, had never been a head coach. Neither had Fulmer’s replacement Lane Kiffin. And Dooley had a career losing record as head coach at Louisiana Tech.
Tennessee’s recent downturn in football began during the latter stages of Fulmer’s regime, but the program has gotten progressively worse thanks to a serious of bad hiring decisions made by former athletic director Mike Hamilton, who fired Fulmer and replaced him with Kiffin. Kiffin stayed one season before bolting for USC, his dream job.
In a reactionary move, Hamilton hired Dooley because of his Southern roots. He’s the son of former Georgia head coach and legend Vince Dooley and also a protégé of Alabama coach Nick Saban. But Dooley has proven unprepared for the task of being a head coach at an SEC school, and he didn't help his cause with his social skills, or lack thereof.
“He has no friends,” one program insider told Nooga.com. “Not among the boosters, the staff, the media. That’s the shame of it all. He never built that support system that might have helped him through the early years when he was still learning how to be a head coach at this level.”
Dooley guided the Vols to a bowl game in his first season, but they lost and finished 6-7. They were 5-6 a year ago, and after the season seven assistant coaches bolted for other jobs in what seemed like lateral moves at best. Did they know something was up?
That turned out to be a harbinger of disaster, as evidenced by the Vols’ rapid decline this season. The hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator was a bad move; Tennessee now has one of the worst defenses in the country, its own proud history and the history of the SEC.
Hart will have to move quickly, thus his decision to relieve Dooley of his duties with one game to go. The makings of a decent recruiting class had been put in place despite Dooley's tenuous situation. His replacement will have to find help at some key areas, most notably defensive back. If junior college players are the answer there, the sooner the new coach gets hired, the better.
Another question is how much money will the administration have to work with once all buyouts are ascertained? Dooley is owed nearly $5 million and will draw a paycheck from the university in $102,400 monthly installments for the next four years. Chaney is also guaranteed salary, about $645,000. The rest of the staff has contracts totaling as much as $3.7 million, depending on whether they find other jobs and how much the new positions pay.