Thursday, December 1, 2011

Troubling news from Knoxville

image Partisan Tennessee Radio Talk Show Host Tony Basilio posted a troubling report regarding the state of the Volunteer football program last night (it’s hard to find the screed, but scroll down). Basilio is a 1990 graduate of the university and hosts a daily 11:00 – 1:00 broadcast covering Tennessee athletics on WVLZ-AM 1180.

He claims to have been told by several program insiders that the program has been melting down from the inside out all season long, and that there are deep divisions among both the team and the staff.

The worst of it is that head coach Derek Dooley, upon hearing reports of some of the behavior, shrugged it off and took no action.

I’ve spent several hours on the phone compiling a pretty good picture of what’s going on inside the football program at this point in time. What I’ve been granted [is] an insider’s glance to a program that is wrought with dissension. I’m talking player against player, coach against coach and player against training staff. This is more than just typical rivalries over offense versus defense in the coaching ranks or even personality conflicts. This goes much deeper. On the player side it’s not just a classic division over age, playing time or side of the football. UT football is a serious mess on and off the field.

One longtime member of the athletic department with inner knowledge of the football program told me the following on Monday evening. ‘I don’t know where to start. There are so many issues over here that need addressing besides talent on the football field. Dooley has his hands full. I’ve never seen a level of turmoil around anything the way it is here right now.’

Many were wondering what the outgoing seniors were talking about when they were mentioning younger guys concerned with their own agendas. Well, two guys they were definitely referring to are Tyler Bray and Da Rick Rogers.

Try this on for size: During the week of the Vandy game, Bray was asked in front of several upperclassmen by a member of the training staff if he completed a cursory workout exercise to which Bray shot back in the earshot of all ‘No. Not really. And I’m not going to do it. Why should I? Besides we’re only going to a shitty bowl game anyway.’ Sources tell me that the upperclassmen who heard this exchange were so incensed that they went to Derek Dooley who shrugged it off and did nothing about it. Another source told me that ‘Dooley shrugs several things off including the way Rogers back talks to everybody he possibly can.’

First of all, there is no consensus among Tennessee fans whether Basilio has any credibility as a solid source of information. He’s been described by some as a shameless hack who’ll do or say anything for ratings and pageviews. But he’s been described by others as someone who calls it like he sees it, whether Vol fans like what they hear and read or not. Take the information for what it’s worth.

Typically however, stories like this are never totally true or totally false. Something is clearly going wrong in Knoxville. Whether you believe it’s an all out dumpster fire or a handbags at five paces kerfuffle among divas, you have to suspect that there’s a conflict.

A very young, very inexperienced football roster gets a lot of blame for Tennessee’s disappointing 5-7 season. Matters seem to have come to a boil following the disastrous and embarrassing 10-7 loss to Kentucky. Tennessee hadn’t lost to Kentucky since 1984. That loss’ impact has apparently magnified divisions inside the program at the same time that it has eroded public support for Dooley.

There’s more than just the word of a radio personality serving as evidence of discord. During his post-game interview with the media after Saturday’s loss, senior tailback Tauren Poole had this to say:

“… no one wanted to be out there. We're all trying to encourage people because people were out of it. When it's like that, you're not going to be able to execute, I don't care where you're at.

“It's an embarrassment. It's really embarrassing to say the least. It sucks for this football team. We can't change anything."

“I told them last week, when this is your last, you want it. You want it all. You want to go for it all. You want to play for it all, you want to play every down like it's your last. When you've got another year, you're not going to play like that. It's obvious that that's what happened today. I'm not blaming anybody. I would never do that to this football team. It looked like no one wanted to be out there, no one wanted to play football."

Elsewhere in that interview, the questioner notes that senior linebacker Austin Johnson had  said that he felt some players were playing for their own stats Saturday rather than the team, and Poole agreed with that assessment. When you have outgoing seniors publicly stating that they felt underclassmen aren’t doing enough to help the team, you have a serious leadership problem on your squad.

Adding fuel to the fire: reported that veteran WR coach Charlie Baggett was leaving the staff, in what reports termed “retirement.” Baggett was one of Dooley’s star hires and no one doubted his coaching credentials. Baggett’s separation from the Vol staff—at age 57—doesn’t sound like a dismissal.

Most college football fans in the southeast genuinely like Derek Dooley. But the same could be said of Mike Shula during his tenure at Alabama from 2003 – 2006. During Shula’s tenure, there were numerous reports of team and staff dissension. Some were substantiated, others were not, but there were clear signals that the head coach was losing control of the program.

Most coaches in the SEC fraternity genuinely like and respect Dooley, but again… the same could be said of Shula. Likeability and good character are important in a good football coach, but so is the ability to seize control of the program, clear the barrel of the bad apples, and show everyone that he is the head MFIC.

Mike Shula wasn’t good at that, and if the troubling reports from Knoxville are reasonably accurate, maybe Derek Dooley isn’t, either.

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