The University of Tennessee football program is beset with questions.
Most of them deal with the next head coach. Who will it be? When will he be introduced? Does he know that Jon Gruden's wife was at one time a Volunteers cheerleader?
Very few of the questions deal with today's game at Kentucky, although did you know there are 1-year-olds everywhere who know nothing but UK beating Tennessee in football?
In this time of great unknown in Vols history, the clear retrospective question is whether former coach Derek Dooley left the UT program in a better place than he found it.
Dooley -- he of the orange slacks, the soap opera hair, the philosophical sound bite and the brutal SEC record -- was fired Sunday after 36 games as the Vols coach. He was 15-21 overall, 4-19 in the SEC and 0-15 against ranked opponents, so there was plenty of empirical evidence to ask him to leave. Those numbers are unacceptable at almost every college football program, and at Tennessee, a program that ranks in the top 10 in all-time wins and bowl trips, it represents the worst three-year run since before World War I.
To be fair, the numbers do not tell the entire story. Dooley inherited a mess created by the internal division from Phillip Fulmer's firing and the public pain of the failed 13-month experiment known as the Lane Kiffin era in Knoxville.
So whether Dooley left the program better than he found it is tough to assess. Kiffin had mortgaged the Vols' future for their present, bending the rules and the UT tradition for a slew of risky recruits who have long since left town in a variety of manners that somehow all resemble Kiffin's smarmy exit.
So Dooley was left standing in the SEC with a broken roster and questionable talent. And if the SEC is college football's OK Corral, Dooley was sent iinto the fracas with a water pistol and cardboard cover.
Dooley overhauled the roster, and if the new coach can convince several of the Vols' draft-eligible pieces to return, the next era will have a chance to start quickly. If Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Ju'Wuan James and Tyler Bray return, UT's offense could be special. It's unlikely Hunter and Patterson will be back since they are first- or second-round NFL picks.
Still, a rock star like rumored replacement Gruden may be able to convince them to come back for one more run.
And if you think you want Bray to leave, well, that's your right since the kid has been less than stable outside the lines and has yet to deliver a hang-your-helmet win on the field. That said, if Gruden or an offensive-minded guy who embraces the passing game comes to Knoxville, here's saying he'd have Bray's full attention, and not unlike Jon Crompton with Kiffin four years ago, struggling and underachieving quarterbacks often benefit the most from coaching changes.
That would be especially true for Bray, who committed to Kiffin and had enrolled in school and was set to attend his first class the morning after Kiffin announced he was leaving UT. Plus, the pieces are in place for the Vols offensive line to be pretty salty, especially if the new regime retains the services of line coach Sam Pittman.
The new coach also will inherit a defense that cannot help but be better. A.J. Johnson will be back, as will Brian Randolph. Never mind the fact that defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri will not return, and all three of those facts are huge, Huge, HUGE benefits to the Vols defense.
Dooley improved the talent, especially considering that Kiffin's 7-6 year in 2009 was on the back of a slew of Fulmer holdovers such as Eric Berry and Montario Hardesty and Crompton and Denarious Moore and Dan Williams. In fact, there were six Vols picked in the 2010 draft.
Kiffin's only UT recruiting class long since flamed out. Sure, several of the players in the 2010 class committed to him, including Bray and James among others, but that technically was Dooley's first class. So, if the 22 members of Kiffin's class were reviewed -- a group that included two five-star players in Janzen Jackson and Bryce Brown and nine four-star kids -- three-star receiver Zach Rogers likely had the best career.
Dooley has left the shelves a little better stocked, but that depends on how many of the juniors come back. And it depends on how many of the players decide to stick it out for the Vols' fourth head coach since October 2008.
That said, Dooley's repairs to parts of the Vols' infrastructure were all but rendered invisible by the early struggles in 2010 and '11 and the inability to deliver a meaningful win in the make-or-break 2012. And the program eroded both in the eyes of the UT loyalists around these parts and college football followers across the country.
The national perception of the Tennessee job is fractional of what it was five years ago. UT was an A-lister not that long ago, and maybe even a top-five job in the country as late as 2004 when Fulmer's team made its fourth SEC title-game appearance in eight years.
Ah, 2004 -- before Urban Meyer completely revived Florida and before Mark Richt had won his second SEC title; before Nick Saban left LSU for the NFL and Miami's Dolpins to turn Alabama into a juggernaut; and before Steve Spurrier moved South Carolina beyond UT in the SEC hierarchy.
The Vols were a power player in the SEC, but that's before the SEC became the country's premier power conference, and the mass movement forward by the rest of the league -- and the self-destructive tendencies of Tennessee -- have left the Vols in a painful slide. In eight years, turmoil within and improvements around the league have cause UT to go from one of the top five jobs in the country to barely one of the top eight jobs in the SEC. And that's sad.
And because Dooley was driving the UT train when it completely derailed last Saturday in the eye-opening beatdown at Vanderbilt, the Vols are worse today than they were when Kiffin went west.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...