By Alex Norman
Those that do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. I believe this to be true, which is why I feel that it is important to remember what happened to Tennessee’s football program ten years ago.
When Lane Kiffin abruptly resigned to take the Southern Cal job on January 12, 2010, Tennessee was in complete panic mode. The campus was literally on fire (well, at least a mattress). National Signing Day was just over three weeks away and the football program was a ship without a captain, lost on the high seas with a perfect storm.
This was a time when Tennessee’s athletics department needed strong leadership. Instead, athletics director Mike Hamilton flubbed his way into the worse coaching hire in the history of the Vols program.
But to be fair, Hamilton didn’t knock on the door of Louisiana Tech head coach/AD Derek Dooley right away. The infamous “short list” that Hamilton said he kept active in case of emergency (like the Kiffin departure) was getting a serious workout. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and TCU coach Gary Patterson, both finalists when Lane was hired, politely turned down the opportunity to come to Knoxville, as did Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
Hamilton’s second biggest mistake during this fiasco came with the handling of Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. The long-time Tennessee assistant coach would have taken the job had he been allowed to bring his coaching staff with him to UT. For some reason, Hamilton balked at that reasonable demand. Perhaps Hamilton didn’t want to pay buyout money for assistants that were going to leave anyway. Maybe Hamilton didn’t really want to bring back the most recognizable assistant from the Phillip Fulmer regime.
Either way, when Hamilton wouldn’t give in, Cutcliffe took his name out of the running. Cutcliffe is regarded as one of the top minds in college football. His role in the recruitment of Peyton Manning changed the Vols program forever. Hamilton had a get out of jail free card, and he ripped it up and threw the scraps in the garbage.
Hamilton was planning to interview Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, who had gone 18-7 as the Cougars head coach. But before the university (or booster) plane got to Texas, it stopped in Louisiana to interview Dooley. For whatever reason, Dooley blew the socks off Hamilton during those discussions, and on Friday, January 15th, he was hired for the Tennessee job.
Dooley had gone 17-20 in three seasons in Ruston and wasn’t on any school’s short list. Only in a situation like Tennessee was facing would Dooley have had a shot at that gig. It meant a big raise and a shot at the big time, and Dooley was never going to turn it down.
Where Hamilton truly failed was with Kippy Brown, who had been established as the interim coach following Kiffin’s resignation. Brown was a Tennessee guy through and through. He was from Sweetwater and had just started his third term as an assistant coach at Tennessee. He was also a voice of calm during a heated exchange between Tennessee’s players and Lane Kiffin when the now former head coach addressed his former team.
Hamilton only interviewed Brown after a deal was struck with Dooley. It was an embarrassing way to treat the well-respected Brown.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course. But considering the timing, Brown should have been installed as the head coach for the 2010 season. If he succeeded, then he could have gotten the job on a full-time basis. If he failed, at least you had a year to get your bearings after the carpet bombing by Lane Kiffin.
Instead, the Vols got Dooley, who went 15-21 in three seasons at Tennessee. They were 4-19 against SEC opponents and a woeful 0-15 versus nationally ranked opponents. He treated alumni poorly and support staff even worse. He recruited with the lowest amount of enthusiasm known to mankind.
Dooley’s hiring was a de facto death penalty.
Heading into the 2020 season it does appear that Tennessee’s program is finally on sturdy footing.
But they’d be wise to learn from the mistakes of the past.