Mon Oct 04 10:40am EDT
Derek Dooley's first nine months on the job at Tennessee have been as tough as football honeymoons get. He was an on-the-fly, fourth-choice hire in January, better known for his last name than as a sought-after coach, left to hold together a recruiting class that was still being wooed by the outgoing staff. Within days of his first spring practice, the team's most high-profile player and only experienced offensive lineman were on their way out, followed by the only experienced quarterback. The summer was highlighted by a wild bar brawl involving at least eight players that left a patron bloodied and bruised and an off-duty cop unconscious in the street. Two months later, Dooley's second game in Neyland Stadium was the most lopsided home loss in school history.
Expectations were not high. Just a week ago, the Vols celebrated a fluky overtime win over UAB like they'd clinched the SEC East. But if any coach in America Saturday deserved the chance to momentarily flip his wig in jubilation after an ulcer-inducing win over an undefeated, top-10 rival in one of the most daunting venues in the sport, it was Derek Dooley.
Which is why I'm willing to call Tennessee's wild loss at LSU – not just the loss itself, which everyone expected, but the contrast between the Vol sideline and Dooley in particular before and after the apparent victory is snatched away – possibly the most emotionally devastating defeat I've ever witnessed:
Dooley said Sunday the team would "mourn" the loss, or more accurately, mourn the win: The 85 seconds during which Tennessee had apparently earned its first conference win of the season were arguably the happiest moments this program has had in more than two years. Maybe the only happy moments.
The clock was expired. The sidelines were empty. The graphic on CBS' broadcast said "Final." The home crowd was preparing to tear Les Miles limb from limb. Then, wham.
As much blame as the Tennessee sideline has to bear for blowing the substitutions amid the chaos (why substitute at all?), part of the sympathy for the Vols stems from the injustice of it: LSU was every bit as disjointed and out of sorts in the final seconds, even more unforgivably so for a team that had the ball and time and enough experience in crunch-time misadventures to know better. But LSU is the team that gets another chance. Les Miles is the coach that gets to "enjoy that one." You know, "as an experience."
For Dooley, on the other hand, it was "as hard as it gets in football." They literally cleared the field after the game had already ended to take Tennessee's triumph away, punish it for a transgression that ultimately had nothing to do with the victory, and give LSU the chance to redeem its own gaffe to advance to 5-0. They were right to do so. But Dooley's right, too: After the year he's had, that's as hard as the game gets.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.