Every coach’s path through the profession is unique, but very few of them are as unique as Derek Dooley’s. The son of College Football Hall of Fame Vince Dooley, the younger Dooley left Athens to play his college ball at Virginia. After college, Dooley went to law school because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He moved to Atlanta and began practicing law, but weekend trips home to Athens taught him he missed football.
Dooley spent a year as a GA at Georgia, then three as the wide receivers coach at SMU. Despite zero history with the man, Dooley joined Nick Saban’s LSU staff despite having just four years in the profession. He spent the next seven seasons under Saban in Baton Rouge and Miami, then took the Louisiana Tech head coaching job in 2007. After taking the job sight unseen, Dooley initially thought he’d ruined his career upon showing up in Ruston and seeing the dilapidated state of the Bulldogs’ facilities. He eventually became athletics director in addition to his head coaching duties and, after a 4-8 third season at La Tech, Tennessee pulled him away when Lane Kiffin abruptly left for USC.
His Tennessee tenure ended after just three years. The overall athletics department was in the midst of a decade-long tailspin, and Dooley’s Vols lost 14 of their final 15 SEC games. After Tennessee, Dooley went to work as the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receivers coach for the past five years until his most recent change, as a first-time offensive coordinator at Missouri.
Dooley, now 50, conducted a Q&A with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the entire thing is worth reading, but I want to highlight Dooley’s reflection on his time with Saban at LSU.
“Seven years with him changed my career in a lot of ways,” Dooley said. “One, he really shaped me as a young coach on what coaching was all about, the Xs and Os, running an organization. The accountability level was high. That’s why I stayed with him. People say, “How did you stay with him so long? He’s hard to work for. He’s demanding.” But I knew we were going to win. I knew I was going to get better. Why the hell wouldn’t I stay? Just because he goes on some rants on you every now and then?
“If you’d ask what are the two most important things as a young coach, it’s developing your trade and winning. When you win it creates opportunity. And when you develop your trade and get an opportunity you’re going to do a better job. Nick gave me those two things and I wasn’t going to leave him until he ran me out or I got an opportunity that was a no-brainer.”
Also interesting was Dooley’s read on why it didn’t work at Tennessee.
“The difference was at Louisiana Tech everybody listened to me and did what I said. At Tennessee very few people listened to me and most of them did something different than what I said,” he said. “That’s how it is at a lot of big places when you don’t come in empowered as “the guy.” you have to learn how to manage those environments. That’s what frustrated me. You can’t even compare the two. You had a lot of division going on between (Phil) Fulmer, (Lane) Kiffin and fans. There was a lot of division on campus. It was a different environment, and I didn’t see it that way but should have.”
Dooley is back in the SEC East, where on Sept. 22 he will coach against Georgia, which is not only his dad’s team but also his son’s. J.T. Dooley is a walk-on receiver for the Bulldogs.