COLUMBIA, MO. • For five years, Derek Dooley had what he called a comfortable job coaching the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers. No longer in the searing hot spotlight of the Southeastern Conference, Dooley was blessed with relative anonymity compared to his former life as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. He was free from the scrutiny, free from the pressure.
He missed all of it.
“Getting back into the crosshairs is a little bit more my personality,” Dooley said Friday, his first news conference as Missouri’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “It’s easy to stay removed from the firing line. You guys (the media) have the ammo and you’re firing away. That’s OK. That’s your job. But there’s a lot of personalities (in coaching) that don’t like that. And that’s OK. They’re great coaches. But I guess that’s not mine.
“I’m a glutton for punishment.”
Things didn’t go well at Tennessee for Dooley, who was fired a week after losing a quadruple-overtime game to Missouri in 2012, ending his three-year run with 15 wins and 21 losses. Five years later, he’s back in the SEC, not as a head coach but saddled with no less pressure as the caretaker of Barry Odom’s offense, essentially making him the head coach of half the roster given Odom’s hands-off approach on that side of the ball. Odom made Dooley, 49, his highest paid assistant last Friday, handing him a three-year deal with a $900,000 salary, along with 10 returning starters from an offense that’s led the SEC in total offense two years running.
That’s just the kind of pressure Dooley savored, back in the conference he’s called home for nine of his 22 years in coaching.
“It’s a huge job,” Dooley said. “It’s a giant responsibility. There’s a lot of people depending on me to do a good job, starting with Coach Odom.”
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In his return to the SEC, where he first coached at Georgia as a graduate assistant and later at Louisiana State under Nick Saban, the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley arrives humbled from his undoing at Tennessee but with an edge to prove he can coach winning football in the game’s most grueling conference. He shares that edge with his new boss, who flew to Dallas last Friday to follow up on several phone calls and strong recommendations from trusted colleagues.
“He’s got something to prove,” Odom said, “and so do I.”
“When I was young, like we all do and our players do, you become bulletproof and invincible,” said Dooley, who also spent three years as Louisiana Tech’s head coach and athletics director and worked under Saban for seven seasons at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. “You can do anything. Man, I knew everything. I think just like in life, the older you get and the more experiences you get, the more you get knocked down you develop a sense of humility and appreciation for everything. The ego diminishes when you get older. It doesn’t grow no matter how much success you have.”
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Dooley also comes to this job with more football knowledge, saying he earned his “PhD in X’s and O’s” the last three seasons working under Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his staff. In Dallas, Dooley was a valuable asset for Cowboys defensive assistant Matt Eberflus, who regularly cross-referenced tips on personnel and technique with the receivers coach.
“From just being around (Saban) a long time and coaching in college and the pros, he has a really good evaluator of talent,” the Cowboys linebackers coach said in a phone interview Friday. “In training camp, when I was the secondary coach, I’d go to him and say, ‘Tell me about this corner and this safety in terms of their coverage abilities. What’s positive about them? What’s negative?’ He’d give me a different set of eyes.”
Eberflus, Mizzou’s defensive coordinator from 2001-08, when Odom first joined Gary Pinkel’s staff, was among three trusted colleagues Odom leaned on when considering Dooley, along with Texas A&M offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey, who worked with Odom at Memphis, and Jay Graham, Dooley’s running backs coach at Tennessee, who now has the same job at Texas A&M.
“Derek’s going to be outstanding,” Eberflus said. “There’s not a situation that he hasn’t thought about or been in. And he’s been in pressure-packed situations here in Dallas and at LSU and Tennessee. He’s made big decisions and he’ll make that transition seem seamless. It’ll be great for him and for Mizzou.”
Dooley doesn’t come to Mizzou with coordinator experience and has never coached quarterbacks as his primary assignment, but he collaborated with Garrett’s offensive staff when it came to designing game plans with the Cowboys, Eberflus said. Dooley was in charge of the team’s red-zone package and involved with third-down calls.
Dooley came prepared Friday for questions about the obvious holes in his credentials.
“Some guys are a little different in coaching,” he said, “but I’ve never been one that just wants to coach one position and do it for 30 years. From the day I got into coaching the more I take in the better.”
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Dooley didn’t reveal much about plans for Mizzou’s offense but indicated he’ll make some changes under Odom’s watch, mixing elements of his pro-style system at Tennessee and the up-tempo spread attack the Tigers ran the last two years under Josh Heupel, now the head coach at Central Florida. With All-SEC quarterback Drew Lock coming back for his senior year, the offense will become “a little more oriented to what he’ll get in the NFL,” Dooley said, probably with more NFL-style reads and passing routes.
Dooley got his first look at Mizzou’s facilities the last two days and spent time with Odom watching game film of MU’s returning offensive players. He’ll hit the recruiting trail soon enough.
When Odom flew to Dallas to recruit Dooley, he looked past his won-loss record at Tennessee and left convinced Dooley can become his “sounding board,” as his only staffer with FBS head-coaching experience. The more he researched the job, Dooley came away impressed with Odom’s performance this past season, when the Tigers followed a 1-5 start with six straight wins.
Now, Odom and Dooley’s futures and legacies are intertwined, for better, for worse.
“Anybody can get out there when things are good and lead,” Dooley said, “but the real leadership showed when their backs were to the wall. That right there told me this is the kind of program I want to be part of.”