'Significantly better'

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The lawyer in Derek Dooley was clearly evident Tuesday, as Tennessee's head football coach addressed the media for the first time in 37 days.

The former attorney essentially combined his closing argument regarding the 2011 season and his opening statement about 2012 in a 32-minute discussion that could be summed up in five words:

"The sky is not falling."

That verdict, of course, will be rendered by the 102,000 fans who will be seated in the Neyland Stadium jury box next fall. They already are sifting through evidence to the contrary:

— Tennessee is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 100 years.

— The Vols recently lost to Kentucky for the first time in 27 years ... with a wide receiver playing quarterback for the Wildcats, no less.

— Post-game reports surfaced suggesting that wideout Da' Rick Rogers was a divisive force on the team and that quarterback Tyler Bray was not interested in facing Kentucky and even less interested in earning a bid to a third-tier bowl game.

— Four coaches have bolted since the loss in Lexington left Tennessee with a disappointing 5-7 record. Wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett abruptly retired, tight ends/special teams coach Eric Russell left for Washington State, while defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach/ace recruiter Peter Sirmon left for Washington.

— The most heralded member of the 2011 signing class, wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, has announced plans to transfer to a school nearer his Saginaw, Mich., home.

— All of the above has created a growing perception that Tennessee football may be on the verge of imploding.

Noting that "Drama can become a reality if you don't address it, and that's why I'm here today," Dooley met with the media Tuesday morning to launch some damage control.

The major topics:

Acknowledging that the loss to Kentucky was an awful way to end the season, Dooley said the worst aspect of losing the season finale is that "you don't play the next week" with a chance for redemption. "It's a good lesson," he said. "Don't do what you do the last game when you're not bowl-eligible. It's a bad way to end it."

The coach said post-game player comments hinting at problems with team chemistry should not be "over-valued" because they were made after a tough loss when "everybody's emotional." Dooley added that Bray was "crushed" after the loss.

The head man dismissed published reports that Da'Rick Rogers is suspended from the program or looking to leave, adding: "Da'Rick's on our team. He hasn't been suspended.... Da'Rick's fine."

The head man said "team building" is the toughest part of a coach's job. He added that the 2011 Vols were especially challenging because upperclassmen tend to be "more invested" after four years in the program, yet most of Tennessee's better players were freshmen and sophomores who may not have been ready to "take ownership of the team."

Although Dooley said Tennessee is doing a lot of things in the offseason to build team chemistry, he added that "growth and maturity" are the biggest keys to developing a strong bond.

The head man conceded that he and his staffers were far from blameless for the season-ending debacle at Lexington, noting: "It starts with us taking responsibility as coaches. There's a lot we could've done differently, a lot we could've done better."

Contrary to earlier reports, Dooley will allow Arnett to transfer to a school near Saginaw, including Michigan or Michigan State. The coach said he merely wanted to have a "one-on-one" with the player before granting him a release from his Vol scholarship.

There is no shortage of leaders on Tennessee's roster, Dooley said, noting that "I think we have a ton of guys who have incredible leadership ability."

The fact schools have hired away three Vol assistants suggests "we're obviously doing something right," Dooley said, adding that Wilcox, Sirmon and Russell are all natives of the Pacific Northwest who essentially left Tennessee to return home.

The loss of Wilcox is hardly unique, Dooley pointed out, since seven SEC teams are undergoing coordinator changes this winter and it is "kind of the nature of our industry." Dooley also said his next defensive coordinator won't do anything "radically different" but that the 2011 Vols were multiple enough to accommodate just about any scheme a new coordinator might bring.

The head man said new running backs coach Jay Graham, hired shortly after Baggett departed, 'has every quality that you want in a coach" and is "going to have a big role for us going forward."

Dooley hopes to fill the other three staff vacancies "the quicker, the better" but won't compromise the process just to "hurry it up." The head man said plenty of aides are eager to join Tennessee but that he is in the "early stages" of the hiring process.

The head man says coaches who are not dedicated to Tennessee need not apply for positions on his staff. "If you want to be here, I need you to be 100 percent," he said. "You need to dive in and bleed orange. If you don't feel that way, then you really should go."

Dooley said he is "really excited" about the way the current recruiting class is shaping up.

With 19 starters returning, the head man said he has "never been more excited about an offseason." He said the returning players "believe in Tennessee, believe in our program and they're fired up about going to work next season."

Despite back-to-back losing seasons, the head man said "the worst is behind us" and the program is "significantly better today" than it was when he took the reins almost two years ago. Dooley added that he is "really proud of what we've accomplished in 22 months."

After losing records in Years 1 and 2, Dooley was asked about the pressure to win in Year 3. "You feel it every year in this league," he replied. Noting that Akron, Memphis and Kansas fired second-year coaches following the 2011 season, Dooley added that the pressure to win games or lose your job is "part of the profession."

The coach characterized the drama surrounding this post-season as "toxic ... bad for the soul. When you love something you support it." Still, he said Tennessee has "one of the best fan bases in the country with a passion that's unmatched. I wouldn't trade 'em for anybody."

Dooley characterized new athletics director Dave Hart as "incredibly supportive" and a man who "100 percent believes in what we're doing and where we're headed."

Shortly after thanking the assembled reporters for attending, Dooley left the podium.

Tennessee's head man tackled some meaty issues and deftly handled several sensitive topics during his 32-minute presentation. Like most lawyers, he is an exceptional speaker. Whether he has the potential to be an exceptional coach will be decided next fall by the 102,000 folks seated in the Neyland Stadium jury box.


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