There has been a lot of debate in the national media for the past year on whether Lane Kiffin was the right hire for Tennessee's football program or whether Bruce Pearl should be fired from Tennessee's basketball program. One of the important issues that is not being discussed much—currently flying mostly under the radar—is whether Derek Dooley will win a Southeastern Conference Championship in football at Tennessee.
It has already been 12 years since Tennessee won their last SEC Championship. They will soon approach the longest drought in UT football history between such league championships. That was from 1969 to 1985, when they went 15 years without one, during the decline of the Bill Battle years and the long, slow climb out of the lean early years of Johnny Majors' tenure.
Is Tennessee any closer to winning an SEC Championship right now than they were in 2007 when they lost to LSU in in that Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, or than they were in 2004 when they lost to Auburn there, or than in 2001 when they also lost to LSU? That 2001 loss in Atlanta was the most heartbreaking Vol loss in recent years, since it denied them the chance to play for the National Championship again against Miami and to be the first SEC team to play in the Rose Bowl in 50 years.
Tennessee's recruiting, though it ranked reasonably high nationally this year, was still in the middle of the pack at best in the ultra-competitive SEC. The Big Orange numbers are low due to the attrition from the Phillip Fulmer and Kiffin years. Thus, they are very thin, with no margin for injuries, and Dooley has not shown a desire to over-sign to catch up, like so many other coaches do, such as Steve Spurrier, Gene Chizik, Kiffin, and even his own mentor, Nick Saban, have.
Dooley seemingly says and does all the right things, and Tennessee has a super football complex under construction that Dooley himself redesigned and added $9 million more to it in costs. That will give Tennessee arguably the best facilities in the nation, and they have tons of support, with the largest donor base in the country, having raised more money than any school in the nation in the past year.
Many of their fans, however, just don't see Dooley winning an SEC Championship in the next 2 or 3 years. If he doesn't win the SEC by 2013, will the UT administration keep him any longer than that, especially in the wake of Chizik and Saban resurrecting their programs to National Championships in less time?
So far, Dooley had a losing record at Louisiana Tech on his resume when he was hurriedly and almost desperately hired by Athletics Director Mike Hamilton a year ago, and has a losing record in his first year at UT. Maybe that will change by 2012, but will just winning eight, nine, or even 10 games a year in a padded 12-game schedule be enough, especially if they can't win minor bowl games like the Music City Bowl?
Every Volunteer alumnus wants Dooley to succeed. He is the son of a football icon, as was his predecessor. Time will tell if that is all he is in terms of being able to deliver on the field or if he is more on his own. Many have speculated that UT should have found a bigger name to succeed Kiffin. Hamilton's star will rise or fall with how well Dooley does, not whether Pearl stays or goes.
Will Dooley take Tennessee to their next SEC Championship? Or will it be his successor that does it? When will that Championship trophy come to Knoxville? Will it even be this decade? Those are big questions that must be answered over the next two seasons on The Hill.