A tale of two coaches
After a football weekend devoted to the University of Tennessee and Maryville College, I found that I didn’t have to pull forth the words to describe the tremendous gulf separating our two college football programs. It took me only a moment to find the words tucked away on one of our bookshelves, and after blowing the dust off, Charles Dickens was just fine in describing two programs separated by just a river, but after Sunday morning were more than just worlds apart.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ...”
The Scots have their first conference football title since Lombe Honaker strode the sidelines at old Wilson Field. They have a young team by any definition and one that is full of potential. Mike Rader is still a few weeks away from his one-year anniversary as head coach but has done a great deal to heal wounds from the dismissal of his predecessor, Tony Ierulli, with a mixture of wins and frankness.
Derek Dooley can only wish for such a state of affairs in Knoxville. With the epitaphs on his coaching tenure at Tennessee being polished up by wordsmiths around the Web, who are merely awaiting the formality of the presumed inevitable official announcement of his firing, just walking into the office each day must be a struggle when everyone tells you that you are likely to be fired at any minute.
And who do you trust in the game of Division I football, where the reassuring smile is more likely to hold the dagger for your back than the frown and raised voice about your job performance. When the media pool and fans are spending more time analyzing the candidates to succeed you than listen to you or watch your team, who wouldn’t want just to be given an answer — no matter how bad — to put the theorizing to rest.
Tennessee’s administration is past the point of acceptable silence. It’s time to tell everyone — Dooley first — what the decision is. Say now, he’s gone or it will be decided at the end of the season or that we have no plans to fire our coach, then stick by the decision and do what you say.
Anything less is a recipe for disaster in both the media and in the perception of UT from any viable coaching candidate. In big-time college football, there is the game of coaching personnel, and you can lose it badly even by the accepted double-dealing standards of both sides in the profession.
While the scale and scope between Division III and Division I is immense, the still-lingering cracks in the MC fan base, that become obvious in the digital world, lead back to the hows and whys of Ierulli’s dismissal last November. On a D1 scale, any misstep is measured in the millions of dollars lost or gained and the fan reaction starting in the thousands of posts, tweets and status changes and ending at the Neyland Stadium turnstyles.
Should Tennessee decide to make that change, it will be hard-pressed to find a way to show solid support and create the kind of separation for a new coach from his predecessors. It never turned the trick all that well with Lane Kiffin and made little effort to do so when he left.
Maryville gave Rader an obvious new commitment to football. More money for a more competitive coaching staff in terms of quality and quantity were the most obvious and enough that there isn’t any fair comparison to be made of the program from this season to any earlier one. In short, Maryville reinvested itself in its football team and gave its new coach a clean slate.
Tennessee will be hard-pressed to do the same.
A title was an unexpected reward for the Scots, but it showed full well Rader understood the premise that conference games count. He won more in his first season playing seven USAC games (5) than Dooley has amassed so far in three SEC seasons (4). Rader’s mark is his school’s all-time high for conference wins in a season, Dooley’s record an all-time low.
So while the Scots are still wearing goofy grins and talking about championship rings, their brethren across the river can’t help but wonder if their coach today will be their coach tomorrow and how can they help but ponder if they’ll once again be spending their spring learning a whole new system.
And Dickens described the contrast of the respective student-athlete’s emotions and prospects for next season, again, more aptly than I.
“We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times, who enjoys reading comments posted to this column at http://thedailytimes.com