ATHENS -- Derek Dooley talks to his dad about once a week. The conversations, however, are not about a young coach seeking help on dealing with trying times or being on the hot seat.
He knows what the situation is, Vince Dooley said Monday. I cant give him a lot of advice. What I can give him is pretty obvious, in what he needs to do. He needs to get better players.
The question is how much longer Derek Dooley will get a chance to get better players as Tennessees head coach. And it is a question that will loom over Saturdays game at No. 5 Georgia.
The younger Dooley is in his third year at Tennessee, where the Vols have gone 14-15 overall and 4-13 in the SEC. The Vols got off to a positive start this year, but their home loss to Florida ended with boos at Neyland Stadium.
There will be a tendency in some parts to turn this game into Derek Dooleys final stand, an irresistible storyline considering it will be at Sanford Stadium, where his father coached for 25 years and served as athletics director until 2004. Derek grew up in Athens but went to Virginia for college.
Its too early to call this specific game the barometer for Dooley. It is, however, the start of a key four-game stretch for the Volunteers, one that athletics director Dave Hart -- who did not hire Dooley -- will study closely.
And it is a tough stretch: at No. 5 Georgia, at No. 21 Mississippi State, home against No. 1 Alabama, at No. 6 South Carolina.
What happens in these next four games, I think will go a long way in determining whether he keeps his job or not, said Jimmy Hyams, a radio host in Knoxville.
Any debate about Dooleys future has to consider the situation he inherited. When he was hired in 2010, it was after Lane Kiffin had left suddenly for Southern California after just one year in Knoxville. Kiffin had replaced Philip Fulmer, who had been forced into retirement.
The instability led to plenty of roster turnover, and for his first two years Dooley was dealing with massive depth issues. His first season, which ended with a bowl trip, left a feeling of optimism. But last year ended with Tennessees first loss to Kentucky in 26 years. There was no bowl.
Hes got a tough assignment; hes inherited a tough situation, Vince Dooley said. His team has definitely improved in a lot of areas. I think this is the first time theyve been 3-1 for (six years). But nevertheless the schedule is tough. Hes better than what he was, but, again, he inherited a very tough situation.
The talent is better on offense, led by quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson -- the latter was recruited by Georgia. But the defense has holes, and Tennessee let Florida rally at halftime and run away with it.
Prior to that game, according to Hyams, a lot of folks who were riding the fence bought in. ESPNs GameDay was in Knoxville, and there was talk that a win would lead to a huge showdown at Georgia.
Instead, the Volunteers enter as two-touchdown underdogs.
Some people still give him a pass, because he did inherit a mess, Hyams said. Ive covered the program since 1985. The team he inherited was by far the least talented team at Tennessee that (Hyams had seen).
Still, Hyams estimates that a little more than 50 percent of fans are leaning against thinking Dooley can get it done. Hart, who was hired last year, has been quiet.
But Vince Dooley hopes Tennessee can stay patient. He used Frank Beamer, who was 24-40-2 his first six years at Virginia Tech, as an example. Beamer survived it and is now one of the winningest coaches in college football.
But the father also acknowledged that there is much more pressure in college football these days, citing Kansas firing Turner Gill last year after just two seasons. He also knows that many at Tennessee forget what his son inherited.
They know it until the game starts, Vince Dooley said. When the game starts, they forget all that.
As he did two years ago, Vince Dooley will watch Saturdays game from his living room. He doesnt hide that he will root for his son and Tennessee, but he declines to do so at Sanford Stadium.
This is an important year for him, he says of his son. So I hope it will allow them to have patience to give him time to get a chance to get established up there.