Displayed, prominently and with high visibility, throughout Neyland Stadium alongside the greats of Tennessee's storied football program are several striking photographic productions that show current --- and never has that title been more tenuous --- Volunteers' skipper Derek Dooley, with the word "Future" boldly emphasized.
It's part of the Vols' admirable to honor their rich heritage, be it from paying special homage here on this Veteran's Day weekend to servicemen and women to the permanent homage to Bill Nowling, Rudy Klarer, Willis Tucker and Clyde Fuson.
Never, however, has Dooley's future been on shakier ground. Not on the heels of Saturday's stunning, 51-48 quadruple-overtime loss to struggling Missouri, which hadn't beaten any SEC team other than Kentucky before this day and oftentimes rarely looked competitive in the process.
I don't know if Dooley has ever noticed the photos inside Neyland Stadium that tout Dooley as the leader who will restore the Vols to relevance and then, presumably, some form of glory, but I know that Dooley looked as harrowed and downtrodden as ever in his two-plus years in Knoxville. He has survived 13 men on the field; the need to start walk-ons in key situations against powerhouse SEC foes; and he had even, albeit temporarily, survived 2011's season-ending loss at Kentucky, a game that now keeps on giving ammunition --- and cold, hard facts --- to Dooley's critics and even one-time supporters who now seem to favor change.
So what did Dooley think Saturday's loss to the Tigers might have done to his future in Knoxville?
"I don't know. We're hurting because of the game and the kids," said Dooley, who appeared to choke back his emotions at this point. "They played their tail off. There's a lot of negativity and that comes with the territory. I'm just proud of how they keep going out there and they lay it on the line. We just didn't make the plays that we needed to make at the end of the game. We started having to pressure it a little bit because the soft zone started grinding on us. Then with the pressure, we throw the ball up and we're all disoriented and we don't make a play on the ball."
There is an aspect of Dooley's future that is assured; be it bad luck, an undermanned roster, bad coaching decisions, bad oranges kicked off the team and simply bad breaks Dooley cannot finish his third season --- and it's hard not to think, fairly or not, that it won't be his last in Knoxville --- with a career .500 mark on the Tennessee sidelines. Dooley needed eight wins this season, just to be climb to 19-19 overall as the Vols' coach.
Whether it was a spoken goal or not, it's gone.
There was the players' post-game contention on this day that they had expected to compete for an SEC title this year.
"No, I didn't," tailback Marlin Lane said when asked if he could have imagined being 0-6 in SEC play. "You know, I felt this year we were going to be probably SEC champs by the offseason and how we were rolling and getting together."
Added junior tailback Rajion Neal, "Yes, hands down, man down. I believe it [that the Vols were talented enough to compete for an SEC title]. Man, you know, we just had literally just small things just not go our way."
Instead, such an audacious goal now appears far beyond the Vols' horizon. And whether that SEC Championship dream was spoken by Dooley, he did, you'll recall, infamously declare at SEC Media Days in late-July that foes no longer would have the Vols to kick around.
Foes, however, don't have to kick the Vols. They mostly can pass over them, and they can run effectively enough when they need to. Missouri needed four overtimes and hardly just gouged the Tennessee defense, but it also made plays against the UT defense when it had to. It combined with Troy to give the last two visitors to Neyland Stadium an astounding 99 points.
To the players' credit and that of the coaches, the Vols once again went down battling. They never seemed to relent; never appeared to blame one another.
They just should never have been in any position to face such adversity. Drama that, until some definitive statement about the program's direction is made, isn't going anywhere; rather this soap opera in many ways is just unfolding.
"It's not easy at all. It's not," Neal said of blocking out distractions. "But you know, you see how much he loves us and how much he loves the game. And how he interacts with us when he's around. We just try to focus on that and enjoy him and enjoy the team and do what we can to go out here and get these wins.
"It'd definitely be some pressure [to think about needing to win for the coaches], but we're not here to think about the future of our coaches and things like that. We're here to play and contribute and, you know, have fun."
It's just as well that Neal said he and his teammates aren't spending any time, at least publicly, fretting about the future of their coaches.
For Derek Dooley never has been on more uncertain ground.
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