David Climer: Is Saturday's game the beginning of the end for Derek Dooley

10:43 AM, Oct 25, 2012   |    comments
Tennessee Volunteers head coach Derek Dooley watches a replay during the game against the Georgia State Panthers in the third quarter at Neyland Stadium. Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE
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By David Climer| The Tennessean

When times are tough, Williams-Brice Stadium is the football version of the Bermuda Triangle for Tennessee coaches.

Two of them -- John Majors in 1992 and Phillip Fulmer in 2008 -- have encountered turbulence, lost their bearings and ultimately disappeared from the radar screen.

A third -- Derek Dooley -- should check the flight plan before taking off this weekend.

With a three-game losing streak heading into his fourth straight game against a ranked team, Dooley's job security is in free-fall. And as history has taught us, carrying excess baggage into a game at South Carolina can be hazardous to your continued employment at UT.

While every situation is different, this has a similar feel to crossroads games for Majors and Fulmer. A brief history of each:

* The '92 season began with Majors, then in his 16th year as UT coach, missing the first three games after undergoing heart bypass surgery. He coached the next two games from the coaches' booth before returning to the sideline.

In short order, a team that had started 5-0 and risen to No. 4 in the nation lost back-to-back home games to Arkansas and Alabama. After those two losses, some off-season nastiness between Majors and UT higher-ups about his salary was revisited.

Then the Vols, ranked 16th at the time, lost to the unranked Gamecocks 24-23 when James Stewart was stopped short of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt.

After returning to Knoxville, Majors discovered that an offer for a contract extension had been taken off the table. After a bye week where top UT officials had several discussions, Majors was informed he would not return for a 17th season. He coached the final three games of the regular season before Fulmer was named his successor.

* Fulmer received a contract extension prior to the 2008 season, but that was of little consequence when the Vols took a 3-5 record into their game at South Carolina.

As had been the case most of the season, UT's offense was utterly inept against the Gamecocks, who built a 21-0 halftime lead. Longtime Vols nemesis Steve Spurrier took it easy after that, which only made matters worse. When Spurrier takes pity on UT, you know you're in trouble.

The next day, then-UT Athletics Director Mike Hamilton informed Fulmer that he was out, effective at the end of the season.

Fulmer left with nice parting gifts -- a $6 million buyout over 48 months. The final monthly installments of $125,000 will be paid in December.

All of which brings us back around to Dooley. With three straight losses and with growing fan dissatisfaction, it is clear he is feeling the heat. At his weekly press conference, Dooley said he understands the frustration.

"Are people upset? Of course," he said. "They should be and I understand that. I'm not in a position to defend what we're doing, make a case for what we're doing. ... We have to prove it on the field."

His current stance is a far cry from what he said at SEC Media Days in July. Back then, he said:

"I know the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times. But there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."

This just in: The Vols are 0-4 in SEC games this season, losing by an average of 16.3 points. They are getting kicked around.

With just one victory in his last 12 SEC games and with a 5-10 record since a 3-1 start last season (not to mention some how things played out for two of his UT coaching predecessors), a visit to Williams-Brice Stadium is the last thing Derek Dooley needs right now.

David Climer's columns appear on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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