Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley cuts a lonely figure walking through the end zone at Neyland Stadium, but he said Monday that athletic director Dave Hart told him no decision has been made on Dooley's future with the Volunteers despite multiple reports that he would not return next year.Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
KNOXVILLE -- It's virtually impossible for Tennessee's players to escape.
For nearly a month, the Volunteers have had to answer questions about playing for embattled coach Derek Dooley's job security from reporters, friends and family.
The coach himself noted Monday how well the team has handled all the distractions internally, and the players truly have been commendable for their public response to all of it.
And while they might not be playing for Dooley's job in the season's final two games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the Vols are playing for their coach, and some for more than just that.
"As a player, I don't try to look at it as playing for Coach Dooley's job or anything like that," defensive lineman Daniel Hood said after Tuesday morning's practice. "To me, I just look at it as getting better each day, and if we do that then we'd secure it.
"I can't [speak] to it about X's and O's because the only thing I know is defensive line and offensive line, but I know as a person he's one of the best people that I've had around in my life -- probably the second-most important I've had in my life."
Those sentiments from the fourth-year junior stem from a summer tragedy. When his grandmother asked him to check on his mother in June, Hood forced his way into her West Knoxville apartment and found his mother and her boyfriend shot to death in a murder-suicide.
"This summer, going through things with my mom and things like that, I wouldn't be where I am today without someone like Coach Dooley," Hood said. "As a player, it's hard to not take it personal when people are attacking your coach. It's hard to separate the X's and O's from the actual person."
Those attacks, Hood said, are "big" distractions for players.
"The thing Coach Dooley preaches all the time is you have to be able to put it away," he said. "It's a great lesson for us, because we're learning how to do things that a lot of people don't get to -- being able to put away distractions and still work and work through that adversity."
Fifth-year senior Willie Bohannon's playing career at Tennessee has had enough adversity. He's one of seven players remaining from the Vols' 2008 signing class, a group that saw Phillip Fulmer let go as coach, Lane Kiffin abruptly bolt to Southern California after one season and the team lose its first six SEC games each of the last two years under Dooley.
The uncertainty around Dooley's future is nothing new to Tennessee's fifth-year players.
"I look at it and I feel sorry for the younger guys who don't really know how these changes really affect them," Bohannon said. "Being through it so many years and going through so many position coaches -- this is my fifth position coach -- nobody really knows how much it affects you as a player. All you've got to do is really stick through it, and that's probably something I need to tell the younger guys.
"A lot of the guys who've been through it [should] just tell them to keep playing hard no matter who's here."
Multiple media outlets, including the Times Free Press, reported Sunday that Dooley won't return for his fourth season as Tennessee's coach. Though he admitted his future is uncertain, Dooley said Monday that athletic director Dave Hart told him Sunday he'd not yet made a decision.
He also declined to go into detail regarding what he told his team before Monday morning's practice, but Bohannon described his coach's address as "pretty emotional."
"You could imagine how it was," he said. "Who knows what's going to happen next year? I've been around all these coaches who have been out and in, and it's a pretty difficult situation.
"I feel really sorry for his family having to go through this, and I know he don't want us to really like think about him in this situation, but think about winning these games. But it's kind of hard because I saw Coach Fulmer have to leave, and cried, and then all the assistant coaches who left and everything. It's a hard situation to be in."
Yet it's one the Vols have managed well to this point by, as they phrase it, sticking together.
"He's going to be here for the rest of the season," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "The team already kind of knew that. There was no team meeting after the game Sunday, so we knew Coach was here to stay.
"We're ready to get these last two for him."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...