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November 12, 2012

Dooley admits future uncertain

Derek Dooley said he didn't ask University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart whether he would be retained as the Vols' coach when the two met on Sunday, but Dooley also noted he doesn't know his coaching future on Rocky Top.

Dooley shared some details of his meeting with Hart but mostly declined to reveal the nature of his early-morning meeting with players Monday when he met reporters for his weekly press conference.

"Yeah, I'm not going to talk to you guys about what I tell the team, though," Dooley said. "Probably the biggest thing, I think when you look at all this stuff, I mean, Yeah I addressed it. They're getting banged up on their phone, the way my kids were getting banged up on their phone and the way my wife was getting banged up. Everybody said I was fired, and I didn't even know it. I'm sitting there working on Vandy, you know. And I'd already talked to Dave.

"And so you've got to come home and address all that with your family and then you've got to address that in the morning with the team. I addressed it."

Multiple media outlets, including VolQuest.com, ESPN.com and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, reported in the aftermath of the Vols' stunning, 51-48 quadruple-overtime loss to Missouri that multiple sources had indicated Dooley's time atop the UT program was drawing to a close. While it had been indicated that Dooley could have potentially remained the Vols' coach moving forward if he closed the season 7-5 and in a mid-level bowl game, sources, both on campus and close to the program, told VolQuest.com that no scenario had been discussed where a change wasn't made if Tennessee slipped to 6-6 or worse.

The Vols (4-6, 0-6) visit surging Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3 SEC) Saturday night at 7 as underdogs. Vanderbilt opened Sunday as a two-point favorite, a figure that had risen to more than a field goal by Monday.

No timetable had been established of when a change could be made, but multiple people extremely close to the Tennessee program on Monday indicated that Dooley made clear to his team in an emotional, teary meeting that he did not know his future as head coach of the Vols or if he would even get the opportunity to finish out this season. Dooley has compiled a 15-20 schedule across two-plus seasons in Knoxville since he was hired to replace Lane Kiffin on Jan. 15, 2010.

Hart has not publicly commented on Dooley's status in several weeks. But Hart said last season after the Vols closed 5-7 and lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 that his program must show progress.

While the Vols have progressed well in a variety of off-the-field areas under Dooley's direction --- his most recent signing class had one of the highest average ACT scores and GPAs in recent history; his Vol For Life program has been deemed a beneficial resource for players and recently helped the team get more than 50 players out to vote last week in national elections --- they have not won enough ballgames.

Tennessee has dropped a program-worst seven consecutive Southeastern Conference contests, lost at least six games for the fifth-straight season and fielded a defense under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri that is statistically among the all-time worst in the program's more than 120-year history.

Dooley said he declined to ask Hart when the two met Sunday afternoon if Dooley would be retained next season as the Vols' head coach.

"I didn't ask him that, but I did ask him a lot of things," Dooley said. "We talked very frankly about it. He told me he had not made a decision, whether we go 6-6, despite what all the reports are.

"Either the sources are wrong, or Dave wasn't being forthright with me, and I have no reason to think Dave's not being forthright. He's an honest man, he's always been honest with me and I've appreciated how he's handled everything about this. I really have."

Dooley drew praise from a number of players Monday for the manner in which he handled the team meeting and addressed key issues.

"It's really big, and it's really important," said junior placekicker Michael Palardy, who added that the players "love" Dooley. "We all recognize that there is a huge elephant in the room and it has to be addressed. The bottom line is that everyone knows what's going on and everyone knows what is being said. There's no reason to hide it or to shy away from it.

"Let's call it like it is and that was the biggest part of what coach Dooley was trying to get across to us. Let's address it. We don't need to be listening to all the other stuff that's being said. We have two more games that we need to focus on. He's our head coach and that's our main focus right now."

Multiple sources told VolQuest.com that some influential people close to the program favored making a change sooner, rather than later, because of other SEC teams that are or are expected to be seeking new coaches. Kentucky fired Joker Phillips last Sunday via a Web site letter; John L. Smith is a temporary coach at Arkansas; and Auburn's Gene Chizik is expected to be fired in the very near future as the Tigers battle on- and off-the-field struggles. Some have indicated the Tigers have ongoing recruiting issues and in recent weeks may have had to keep some assistant coaches in-house rather than on the road evaluating prospects.

The counter argument against making a coaching change at Tennessee right now is that announcing any change could seize what's left of the Vols' season as they visit Vanderbilt this week and host Kentucky Nov. 24 in their regular-season finale. Tennessee must win both those contests and a bowl game to avoid its fourth losing season in five years.

"We don't mention it. We like to keep that out of sight, out of mind," junior tailback Rajion Neal said Saturday after the Vols' loss to Missouri before admitting it has been difficult to block out the external noise. "Don't want to bring it up. Don't want to hear about it. We just try to stay zoned in and focus on the task at hand. We're a family. We'll take care of it at the end together as a family."

Lagging attendance also has been an issue inside Neyland Stadium, where the Vols have had just one hard sell-out --- Sept. 15 against Florida --- this season. The Vols drew an announced crowd of barely 84,000 for homecoming against Troy on Nov. 3 and less than 90,000 this past Saturday for the program's first-ever meeting against new SEC member Missouri. Tennessee's average attendance to percent of capacity this season is around 89 percent, the second-lowest number in the SEC. Kentucky, which recently fired its coach after less than 20,000 fans saw the Wildcats get blown out by Vanderbilt, is at 73.86 percent of capacity.

Parting ways with Dooley would not be cheap. Dooley's contract originally would have included a $4 million buyout at the end of his third season, but that deal was extended one year after Dooley led the Vols to the Music City Bowl following his inaugural season and thus the buyout has remained $5 million. Tennessee is expected to spend more than $7 million in buying out contracts of coaches when a formal decision is made to steer the program in a new direction. Both Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have guaranteed money in their deals, regardless of if they find employment elsewhere. The contracts of Tennessee's other assistant coaches largely are structured to minimize Tennessee's obligations if those coaches find jobs in other programs.

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