KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Derek Dooley is out at Tennessee.
The university announced the anticipated firing Sunday after Dooley posted the storied program’s longest run of consecutive losing seasons in over a century .
Dooley, 44, had a 15-21 record that included an 0-15 mark against Top 25 teams. Dooley was 4-19 in Southeastern Conference competition during his three-year tenure and had lost 14 of his last 15 league games.
The school will hold a news conference Sunday at 2 p.m.
Dooley had four years left on his contract, which includes a $5 million buyout.
“We very much appreciate the effort and energy that Derek Dooley and his staff have poured into our football program at the University of Tennessee,” athletic director Dave Hart said in a statement. “Derek and I met early this morning, and I informed him that I believed a change in leadership, despite the positive contributions he has made to the overall health of the program, was in the best long-term interests of Tennessee football. We will immediately begin the search for the best possible candidate to assume this leadership role.”
Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) must beat Kentucky on Saturday to avoid going winless in SEC play for the first time in school history. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will serve as the Vols’ interim coach for the Kentucky game.
Tennessee’s 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday guaranteed the Volunteers their third consecutive losing season, which marks the first time they have finished below .500 in three straight years since 1909-11. Tennessee’s loss to Vanderbilt marked only the second time in 30 years that the Vols had fallen to their in-state rival.
The Vols will fail to reach a bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time since being left out four consecutive years from 1975-78.
“I am sorry we could not generate enough wins to create hope for a brighter future,” Dooley said in a statement. “Although progress was not reflected in our record, I am proud of the strides we made to strengthen the foundation for future success in all areas of the program. During the last 34 months, I’ve given my all for Tennessee, and our family appreciates all this University and the Knoxville community has given us.”
Dooley’s successor will become the Vols’ fourth coach in a six-year stretch. Phillip Fulmer was fired in the midst of a 5-7 season in 2008 and ended his 17-year tenure with a 152-52 record. Lane Kiffin stayed for just one year before Southern California hired him away. Now Dooley is leaving after only three seasons.
Tennessee won at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posted double-digit wins in nine of those years, but the Vols haven’t earned more than seven victories in any of their last five seasons. This will mark their fifth losing season over the last eight years.
“It’s real surprising,” junior quarterback Tyler Bray said after the Vanderbilt game. “I didn’t think we’d have a losing record. I thought we’d only lose a couple of games, maybe two or three, and we’ve been getting our butts kicked. It’s really not fun. “
Tennessee faces some financial issues as it chooses its new coach. The university’s athletic department posted a $3.98 million budget deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year in part because of buyouts it was paying to Fulmer, former athletic director Mike Hamilton, former men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former baseball coach Todd Raleigh.
The football program is on probation until August 2015. The NCAA handed Tennessee a two-year extension of its probation Friday after ruling former assistant Willie Mack Garza provided impermissible travel and lodging for an unofficial visit by former prospect Lache Seastrunk, who eventually signed with Oregon and has since transferred to Baylor. Garza worked as an assistant on Kiffin’s staff.
Dooley didn’t enter an ideal situation when he arrived at Tennessee in January 2010 after going 17-20 in three seasons at Louisiana Tech. Tennessee went a combined 12-13 in the two years leading up to his arrival.
After Dooley led Tennessee to a 6-7 record and Music City Bowl bid in 2010, the Vols went 5-7 last season and closed the year with a 10-7 loss to Kentucky, ending the Vols’ 26-game winning streak in that annual series.
Dooley overhauled his coaching staff over the winter, most notably adding Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator after Justin Wilcox left to take the same position at Washington. The Vols were confident they could turn things around this year. Dooley said during the SEC Media Days that “you’re not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Vols briefly entered the Top 25 after winning their first two games this season, but they’ve lost seven of nine since.
Although the offense has produced plenty of points, the defense has allowed 37.4 points and 476.8 yards per game. The Vols haven’t given up that high a scoring average over the course of a full season since allowing 42.7 per game while playing a six-game schedule in 1893. Tennessee hasn’t allowed that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year Tennessee measures that statistic in its media guide.
As the losses piled up, fans started staying away.
Tennessee’s average attendance of 94,642 last year was its lowest since 1989. The Vols’ average announced attendance through six home games this season is 91,318, more than 11,000 below Neyland Stadium’s capacity.
Dooley acknowledged at his Monday news conference that his future as Tennessee’s coach was up in the air. Several players spoke out in support of him in the days leading up to the Vanderbilt game. Junior nose guard Daniel Hood noted how Dooley helped him deal with the death of his mother this summer.
“I can’t talk to you about X’s and O’s because the only thing I know is defensive line and offensive line,” Hood said. “But I know as a person, he’s one of the best people that I’ve been around in my life, probably the second most important I’ve had in my life too.
“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. As a player, it’s hard not to take it personal when people are attacking your coach and things like that. It’s hard to separate the X’s and O’s from the actual person.”
Dooley often pointed out that the Vols weren’t far from turning the corner. They either were ahead or trailed by one score in the second half of losses to Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri. But they didn’t put up much of a fight Saturday while posting their most one-sided defeat to Vanderbilt since 1954.
“I don’t think you can say where this program is on one game,” Dooley said after the game. “We’ve had a lot of really good games that we didn’t win this year, so the program is certainly not near where we need to be. It’s not anywhere close to where the fans want it to be, but it’s probably a little bit better than what people think it is. That’s how I would assess it.”