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October 31, 2012

Chalk Talk: Big picture edition

Each week during the football season, former Tennessee assistant coach Doug Mathews joins us to share his thoughts on the Vols. Join The Coach each Saturday morning at 9 a.m. EST for a Big Orange-slanted look at the day's action on Forklift Systems Football Saturday, and again each Sunday morning at 9 a.m. E.S.T. for Big Orange Sunday, presented by Superior Seed & Supply on WGFX FM, 104.5 in Nashville, for a look each week at the state of Tennessee football, what just happened, and what lies ahead.

Let's start just by hearing some thoughts from the South Carolina game. Any thing really jump out at you?

I think we saw exactly what we thought we would see from the various areas of the football team. Especially the offensive line, just a really great effort by them. Also, whether you want to calling it a 'talking to' or say that coach Dooley called out a couple of players, certainly the wide receivers and the quarterback played extremely well. I thought.

Honestly, that was the best performance from our offensive front against high quality people that I've seen in I can't say how long. I don't know how far you'd have to go back, many years at least. Considering that Neal wasn't there, I thought we got plenty out of the running game. You'd have to really be nitpicking to find problems with the offensive play in that game, in my opinion. Especially considering the opponent.

Our kicking game continues to just be….I guess inconsistent is a good word. It wasn't very good to say the least

Defensively it's just the 'same old, same old,' I don't think anyone was surprised to see us play the way we play. You hope you're going to play a little better going into every week, but it's pretty much the same story.

It was much the same thing, too many yards, too many missed tackles, too many busts. Like the old Dennis Green saying goes, 'we are who we thought we were,' on defense anyway.

Even with all that though, we're still sitting there at the end of the game with an opportunity to win. But that's a perfect example of why you recruit big-time players who can make big-time plays. That's exactly what happened on that key fumble.

That's the kind of thing we've probably touched on every week. In big ball games, especially in this league, you're best players have to come up big.

We got more of that on the offensive side this week, they played very well. Defensively we just really don't have that kind of player.

Clowney had been kept in check all day long, but when they had to have a big play made, their big play guy made it.

With Tennessee having now lost SEC games when it scored 44, 31 and 35 points, any chance of a rift in a locker room between offensive and defensive players forming? I'm sure you've been around some teams where one side carried a heavier share of the burden, but this seems extreme.

I've been on both sides of this. When I was at Tennessee I coached on both sides of the football over the course of 10 years. There were games and parts of whole years where we were terrible on offense and pretty good on defense, or vice versa.

Coaches, believe me, understand. And as far as players go, that's part of building a team. You hope that they understand the situation too, that you've developed your team over the years.

There's going to be some games, and I think coach Dooley said this, that there's going to be ball games where we have to score 40 points. This was one of them. There's going to be other games where the defense has to carry the day, hold somebody down, get a late stop.

That's the essence of a really quality team though. If your defense has to step up and hold people down they can rise up and do it. If your offense has to make a play, make a drive, score some points, they can do it. Of course we've seen that defensively, this year, we're just not good enough to hold up our end, particularly in conference play.

Derek Dooley's job security and the overall staff performance remains a hot topic. I know from talking with you earlier you've got some deep thoughts on the state of the program, and a sense that the problems were seeing on the field this fall actually have their roots in events that unfolded, in some cases, a decade ago. Since the Troy match-up isn't exactly a hot topic, mind to share some of that?

Not at all, and this will be clear as we get into it, but I want to make sure that everyone understands I think that the problems that coach Dooley and the program are experiencing right now are impacted by decisions that were made years ago.

This goes back a lot further than Derek Dooley. I contend that there are two key years that started Tennessee down the path to where we are right now. One was 1999 when Dr. Joe Johnson retired as president.

The next one is after the 2002 season Doug Dickey resigned as athletic director. Those two men were the cornerstones of stability and administrative excellence that oversaw many years of quality football.

From the moment Dr. Johnson retired the influence of our president started going downhill. Certainly the same is true of what happened with the performance of our athletic director after Doug Dickey stepped down.

Since then we have slowly gone down hill in our athletic department, particularly our football program. In my opinion, during that period of time we've lost communication with the academic part of our university and really seen a decline in how the athletic department has been able to work with the academic side.

Now, by no means am I saying you should let every dumb jock who isn't qualified in school. I'm not saying that at all. What I am saying is that if you're going to be judged by how you do against the Alabama's, the Georgia's, the South Carolina's of the world, then you should be on equal footing with them when it comes to things like admissions.

The curriculum has gotten much tougher, getting young men in school has gotten much tougher. Getting credit for grades has changed. Now if you make a C-minus, you don't get credit for that towards your eligibility now. It has to be a C or above.

The biggest thing though is that we haven't had adequate leadership from those two positions.

We've had five presidents come through there and fired three of them. We had an athletic director who slowly let things go downhill and slip away in the football program and that's why we are where we are now.

If you listen to what Phillip Fulmer says every time he talks he always mentions how important Joe Johnson and Doug Dickey were to getting this program to a national championship level. That wasn't an accident and not something he said to make those guys feel good about themselves.

If we don't have a chancellor who is 100-percent committed to getting this program back to the championship level and if we don't have an athletic director with that commitment, then it really doesn't matter who your head football coach is, you're not going to get the results we all want to see from the football program.

What happened, the decision was made to let coach Fulmer go and bring in Lane Kiffin. That obviously didn't work out. That's apparent.

Then because of the timing of the change, maybe we didn't end up with the person who we wanted or was the most qualified for the job. That's how coach Dooley got the job.

We all think we're ready to do anything, but in my opinion, he really didn't have the background to be the head coach at the university of Tennessee. I get some push-back on this, particularly because of Phillip's background when he got the job.

Well, Phillip had been with the program at that point for about 15 years, had been a coordinator and maybe most importantly had recruited at the championship level for this program.

Which gets me to the biggest problem, the No. 1 thing, facing any head coach at the University of Tennessee. He must understand that recruiting at the University of Tennessee is different because you have to recruit nationally.

If you don't understand that, if you don't understand just the kind of athletes that Alabama, Georgia, Florida have, then you can get behind the eight-ball.

That's what I think happened to coach dooley. You can argue about why it happened, but I think that's happened to our roster.

One of the things that I think probably contributed to the recruiting problems as well as the overall stability here is that going into year three he had seven of his nine assistant coaches who were brand new. Going into year three, you hope that you've made some big steps towards establishing continuity, towards getting everyone not just on your staff, but in the whole program on the same page.

You don't want to go into that third year completely changing your defense and almost 80 percent of your coaching staff. No matter how good those coaches are, it's a new system, it's a new challenge to learn both for the players and the coaches.

That should be the last thing you want to do.

It was also very obvious to me that coach Dooley and his first staff didn't really recruit enough of the same caliber of players as the teams we're supposed to beat in this league.

I know what coach Dooley's thinking was and what he said, he wanted guys who were going to be here for four years, who would graduate and help build the program.

Quite honestly, and I've looked at it closely, we don't have the kind of players that those teams playing at a championship level in this league have. Until we get those players we're not going to be at that level. No coach can win consistently when they're facing a talent discrepancy like we are.

We've got some, but we've not got enough and I think that's kind of where we are right now.

There's a lot of reasons we're not playing good defense, but the major one in my opinion is that we just don't have enough defensive talent to play the kind of football we need to in order to compete at the highest levels in this conference.

Anybody that looks at it and is fair minded, can look at our players on that side of the ball, the way they run, and it's just different from the kind of players Alabama, Georgia and Florida are fielding right now.

You can argue the pros and cons all day long of our scheme and how we're getting coached on defense, that's fair, but the basic bedrock problem is we don't have enough players.

That's the No. 1 thing that a head coach at Tennessee has to understand. Nobody understood that more than Phillip Fulmer. You can go back and look at the entire history of this university no one recruited nationally like Phillip Fulmer.

You could see that in the 1997 team that was honored two weeks ago. Out of 25 signees in one of those classes there, 15 of them went on to play in the NFL. That's what you have to have and we're not anywhere near that point now.

Could we have played better this season? Yes. Could we have won a couple more games? Probably.

But where are we athletically? We're a middle-of-the-road SEC team in terms of our overall talent.

That's my opinion from looking at this team and I look at all these teams. I look at all of them in this league. I know that LSU only has three seniors on their two-deep right now. I know that Alabama only has five seniors on defense in their two deep. It's not going to get any easier.

It's just apparent if you look at it objectively.

I want Tennessee to win. I want Derek Dooley to do exceptionally well. The last thing we need is a coaching change. And I'm not saying there is going to be one or there's not going to be one. What I'm saying is that the team I'm looking at right now isn't good enough to play and be successful against the best teams in this league.

Without belaboring the point, is it safe to say then that some of the problems you see with the program are beyond the realm of the head coach to fix?

No question, and I don't want to bore you with a lot of figures, but the financial side of the things at Tennessee just isn't where it needs to be. Some of that is probably related to administrative issues or management in the recent past, but some of it is also a result of how the athletic department and its relationship to the university is set up.

For instance, Tennessee has less than $2 million in its reserve fund right now. You'd like to have around $20 million I think. A place like Georgia has in the neighborhood of $60 million.

Tennessee's athletic department gave approximately $17 million to the university last year, both directly and indirectly. That happens every year. The numbers fluctuate, but that's been going on since Bob Woodruff was AD.

That's more than double any other school in the SEC contributed. Additionally there are several schools in this league that don't give any money back to the university, and this is going off of last year's financial numbers.

No matter who your head coach is, as long as those parameters are in place, you're not going to be playing on a level playing field in this league.

Now, everything that I've heard about Dave Hart suggests strongly to me that he's trying to rectify that situation, but it's a system that's been in place for decades.

And again, I'm not advocating for a coaching change, like I said above. However, if we end up in a coaching search, any top head coach--and I mean elite head coach--is going to be interested in how much help he can expect to get academically, what is the admission situation like with the admission's department and what's the financial status of the athletic department.

Any top head coach is going to ask those questions and be very interested in the answers. And if he doesn't ask those questions then he's probably not qualified to be head coach at the University of Tennessee.


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