Dooley finding his way around the Big Orange

It’s out there, the one scalding remark that Derek Dooley is sure to hear if he doesn’t find some traction for Tennessee football.

“What did you expect? We got some Georgia guy running our program.”

So far, there is no hint of resentment that an outsider is sitting behind the desk once occupied by Gen. Neyland, Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer. The blogs are mute, the Big Orange fandom is not all a Twitter. There is no disdain for the son of the legendary Georgia football coach, Vince Dooley.

It’s early. The Vols haven’t played a game. Dooley’s orange is still bright.

“Dooley plays very well right now. You got a guy coming in with a Southern accent, he understands the traditions at Tennessee and the SEC and that helps right away,” said John Adams, a columnist with the Knoxville News-Sentinel, who has frequently clashed with UT's coaches.

“He is also really good with people and really good with booster clubs. I’ve heard him speak. People are finding out he can be funny and he has some wit and can be very sarcastic, which I appreciate. He’s more Barbara [Dooley] than Vince. He has a lot of personality and Vince could be dry.”

The newly minted Tennessee coach, to hear him tell it, is somewhere between his mother and father.

“Everybody loves her because she prescribes to the theory speak first, think second, the exact opposite of my dad,” Dooley said. “But I do have a lot of her in me, too.”

The Dooley Era officially starts Sept. 4 with a home game against Tennessee-Martin and the faithful seems to be understanding about his predicament and are holding their opinion. Who knows if they will remain mum after the Sept. 11 game with Oregon, which will be followed by a game with No. 4 Florida.

There is a new quarterback, a new featured running back and a lack of depth on both sides of the ball. The Vols are not working with the maximum 85 scholarship players because of defections from the incoming recruiting class and departure of veterans when Lane Kiffin abruptly quit in January to take the Southern California job.

“Any time you have the transition we have had at the head coaching level -- three in three years -- you’re naturally going to have more attrition than you normally would have,” Dooley said. “And you’re naturally not going to have the kind of recruiting classes you would have with stability.”

One reason Dooley has been accepted by Tennessee fans is that he has embraced the school’s traditions while Kiffin scoffed at them, according to former players. When he was introduced as coach, Dooley stood next to a wall in the locker room bearing the seven “Game Maxims” handed down by Neyland 90 years ago and he said they were important to the program.

Dooley was cheered by the standing room only crowd that night, which included many former Vols.

“It validated what I believed as an outsider, that there was something about this place that created a passion for former players, unlike a lot of the other teams in this league. And I mean that,” Dooley told the Associated Press recently. “Players come here and they truly unpack their bags and forge new relationships.”

Still, Dooley is looking for new ways to handle the day-to-day tasks of a multi-million-dollar operation.

For instance, the Vols are using a plus-minus chart to gauge a defensive players’ efficiency, similar to what is used in hockey. It is a production chart that grades negatives -- missed assignments and missed tackles -- and the positives, such as tackles behind the line. It is his own touch.

He is not just signing off on training staff regimen for players’ nutrition, but giving it some thought and flexibility.

Dooley better be flexible. The NCAA, according to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton, is expected to deliver a formal letter of inquiry to the school in the coming weeks, if not already, regarding violations of NCAA rules.

The charges should center around Kiffin, who left Jan. 12 for USC. But the school might be in jeopardy for a lack of institutional control under his watch.

In addition to its NCAA troubles, the Vols have may have to mend their reputation.. They recently backed out of a series with North Carolina, a rising power in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was considered too tough a non-conference matchup, considering the rebuilding Dooley has to undertake.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who applied a frequent needle to the Vols when he coached at Florida, couldn’t resist the opportunity.

“Golly, times have changed when Tennessee doesn’t want to play North Carolina in football because they’re too good for them,” Spurrier said on his radio show last week. “That’s kind of amazing right there..”

Indeed, the Tennessee brand is nothing like it was 10 years ago. The Vols have not been to the SEC championship game since 2007. They are 7-9 in the SEC the last two seasons.

Fix that and the Big Orange crowd will forget all about where the new coach grew up.