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What's your choice for Rocky Top?

Published: 3:46 PM, 11/06/2012 Last updated: 4:00 PM, 11/06/2012

Author: Seth Butler
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

In the spirit of Election Day, with important decisions on the table for our country, there are also tough decisions that lie ahead for those in power just down the road at the University of Tennessee.

Tennessee's football program, in the wake of a near-disaster against Troy on Saturday afternoon, faces a decision at the crossroads.

A splintered and fractured fan base now appears divided. Some Tennessee fans are ready to part ways with Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley - just 33 games into his tenure. Others are cautioning a decision, which comes with a hefty $5 million buyout for the head coach and the uncertainty another coaching search would bring.

That's where you, our readers, come in.

The Newport Plain Talk has devised an online poll - available at - to gauge the feelings of Tennessee fans in this tumultuous time.

The poll gives four options: Retaining the Tennessee coaching staff for 2013, retain Derek Dooley but dismiss defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, replace Dooley after the 2012 season, or terminate Dooley immediately.

The final votes will be tallied at 4 p.m. on Friday and published in the weekend edition of The Plain Talk.

Making the case for Derek Dooley

Vols coach Derek Dooley, in just his third season at the helm of the Vols, has guided Tennessee to consecutive losing records. Dooley has won only four SEC games in that time period and only one over the past two seasons.

However, the Tennessee coach - the son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley - took over a football program that was nearly in shambles. Two years prior to Dooley's arrival, Tennessee fired Phillip Fulmer. They then hired Lane Kiffin, who in an attempt to build the roster his way, which led to major attrition with a number of players leaving the program.

Kiffin left after one season for an opportunity to coach Southern Cal.

The move left the Vols roster short on bodies and talent. Despite the initial challenges, Dooley in his first season guided the Vols to a 6-7 record and appeared to have a couple of signature wins turn into crushing defeats.

Tennessee opened the 2011 season with some hope after a highlight reel victory over Cincinnati, however injuries to offensive standouts Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter sent the Vols reeling to a second straight winless October. The Vols never rebounded, having to snatch an overtime win over Vanderbilt from sure defeat and then dropping an embarrassing game to Kentucky in the season finale.

Despite the struggles in the win-loss column, Dooley has restocked the roster with bodies and some talent. He has gotten the Vols to a more competitive level with most of their SEC foes.

Off the field, Dooley has restored pride to the program and instituted a player development initiative, entitled the Vol For Life program.

Many say Dooley, despite the troubles on the field deserves a fourth year due to circumstances outside of his control, including injuries and the situation he inherited after Kiffin bolted Knoxville.

Making the case for change

While there are known challenges to Dooley's situation, along with life in the SEC, the Vols haven't risen to the competitive level to satisfy the fan base.

While most fans understood the challenge before Dooley and the Vols, they became disenchanted with the situation in the aftermath of that loss at Kentucky last November. Even a win over North Carolina State in the 2012 season opener could generate much excitement, aside from this September's home game with Florida.

Attendance at Neyland Stadium has been waning, with one of the smallest crowds in recent memory on hand for this past Saturday's game with Troy - which the Vols pulled out despite trailing with under four minutes to play.

Confidence in Dooley to achieve the needed success at Tennessee has also waned. While fans expect struggles against teams like Alabama, they do expect to beat mid-level SEC teams like Mississippi State. The Vols loss to the Bulldogs last month was damaging to the fact that it likely knocked them from contention for a New Years Day Florida bowl and also diminished expectations for the final month of the season.

That loss also jump started the talk of the potential dismissal of Dooley, and sent discussions regarding a potential successor into overdrive. Rumors swirled two weeks ago about the potential for Jon Gruden to replace Dooley on the sidelines next fall.

Anytime discussion regarding a coach's successor is on going with five games to play in a season it's never good for the stability of the program.

Decision makers also much consider how much stability keeping Dooley another year will provide. Tennessee would pay the same buyout to Dooley in 2013 as they would if they fired him this year.

Would a coach that entered the 2012 season on the hottest of hot seats be able to bring much to the table if he is retained for the 2013 season? The Vols 2012 recruiting class suffered some due to those talks and it's likely that the 2013 class would end up worse under even more labored circumstances.

Couple Dooley's red hot seat status in the event he returns in 2013, a schedule which features road trips to Oregon, Florida and Alabama in the first eight games of next season, and it's likely that the Vols are facing another 3-5 start to the season - which is what angered many Tennessee fans to begin with this fall.

How the decision will be made

Ultimately the decision to keep Derek Dooley or to make a change will come down to a handful of elements. Big money boosters will be needed to help fund most of the Dooley buyout, along with that of his coaching staff, as the University's athletic department is in a precarious financial situation.

Also, how does new athletic director Dave Hart feel about the matter? Hart has been around successful football, so he knows what it takes to win. Would he feel comfortable pulling the plug this year, or would he want to give Dooley one more year to prove himself?

University administration, including chancellor Jimmy Cheek, could also have a say so in the matter - as they look to overcome the perception that Tennessee is a football factory.

A culmination of those three elements will likely collaborate on how to proceed over the course of the next month.

What does the decision come down to?

This decision, which could set the course of the Tennessee football program for up to the next decade, will be one that is thoughtful and one that will be need to bring a fractured fan base back together. A combination of factors will be critical as the 2012 season plays out.

Any loss down the stretch, resulting in a .500 season - or worse - is likely the final nail in Dooley's proverbial coffin. Even at 7-5 though, Dooley is not home safe with another year left in Knoxville.
Multiple factors, including attendance at Neyland Stadium, the play of the team down the stretch - with any signs of improvement from a woeful defense pivotal - and the feelings of big money donors will be crucial.

While University administration can throw their pro-academic stances around and while Dave Hart still may be shy of reaching a conclusion - this likely comes down to how the boosters feel.

After all, they have to foot the bill for the buyout and likely the salary any new coach will command coming into a struggling program.

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