There's very little to smile about around the Tennessee football program right now, not after Saturday's 44-13 loss to No. 1 Alabama dropped the Vols to 0-4 in SEC play for 2012. Not with a trip to South Carolina looming on Saturday and not with a frustrated fan base loudly and consistently expressing their displeasure with the course this season has taken.
Nope, things aren't great around the Vols' program right now.
Say this for Derek Dooley though, the head coach both 'gets it,' and he's kept his sense of humor intact through a string of four conference defeats and the kind of fan apathy.
The fact that the head coach hasn't lost his levity was apparent at several moments during his Monday press conference, but never more clearly than when he debunked outlandish reports which surfaced on Monday that alleged he had spoken with athletic director Dave Hart after the 2011 season about accepting a buy out.
"That's exactly why I don't read those websites. That's absurd. Do they put who writes that stuff? Who are the sources? No, that's absurd," Dooley said, emphatically refuting that particular rumor.
He went on to say that the story reminded him of his high school coach growing up in Athens, Ga., who jokingly would offer to resign at the end of every season. Jokingly, Dooley pointed out because the team went 52-4 during his own four-year career, and no one was remotely interested in making a change.
"His point was he didn't want to be there if they didn't want him. Of course he never left, people were always like, 'oh no, no, we don't want you to leave,'" Dooley said, breaking into a bit of a grin as he realized that the story he was telling bore little resemblance to his own situation at the moment.
"I haven't had the courage to do that right now. Maybe one day I'll do that, but I'm not doing that right now. I'd be real dumbass to do something like that."
The fact that Dooley seems more than willing to acknowledge the frustration among the fanbase is one of the more intriguing elements of his situation. His future is a divisive issue among Tennessee diehards and cries for a coaching change have been getting louder as the losses mount in his third year on the job.
Having grown up in the home of an SEC head coach--at a school equally passionate about its football--it's not surprising that Dooley has a firm handle on exactly where the frustration comes from. What is somewhat unusual though is to hear the matter-of-fact manner he addresses the reality of those concerns.
It's not the same approach that many coaches would take, certainly not some around here who went through similar challenges.
"Are people upset? Of course. They should be and I understand that. I'm not in a position to defend what we're doing, make a case for what we're doing...we have to go prove it on the field. Do I feel confident that we will over time? Yes, I do. I do," Dooley said of the big picture for the program and his place in it.
"Am I little disappointed we haven't done more to this point? Of course I am. I'm not upset that people are angry and screaming at the coach. You haven't been in this business if you don't expect otherwise. I've been getting some voicemails. I don't know how they got my number. But that's the way it is. They're screaming for guys everywhere when you don't play the way they expect you to play. What am I going to do? It's not going to help us if I sit here and try to defend it. We've got to go play better, and we're going to do it."
As he has stated in the past though, Dooley added that he and the staff were somewhat insulated from the 'chatter' because of the all-consuming nature of their jobs, particularly during this time of the year.
Unfortunately for the head coach at the moment, the frustrations he's feeling over just how tough that job has become recently, trumps any pressure he may be feeling from a frustrated and increasingly vocal fanbase.
"The hardest days are Sundays. I mean they are. Saturday nights and Sundays, after the game. It is hard. Any coach that says, `it doesn't bother me.' They are lying. It hurts. It hurts when you lose. It hurts when you feel like you aren't performing like you can. There are a lot of things you start questioning," Dooley said of the pattern.
"But then you do an analysis and you wake up Monday and you say, `what is the plan this week to fix it?' and you start getting into the plan and you get around the players and you are fine. That's the way it is. You are so distanced from what is outside this building that is probably why you are able to keep your spirits good."
This Saturday's match-up with South Carolina, coming off a 44-11 beatdown themselves at Florida, while a stern test, is also likely the Vols last chance to make a big splash against a name opponent this fall.
Concerns about the head coach losing this team, or the players themselves losing motivation in after an 0-4 league start, have been aired repeatedly since Saturday's loss, and they don't seem completely far-fetched.
The Vols themselves though scoff at that notion, claiming that the desire to keep improving and finish the season on a positive note is as strong as ever, despite the recent string of defeats.
"We still have that motivation, I don't see a let up in that, guys came out to practice today with a good attitude and got to work," Herman Lathers said of the team's mindset. "It's always a little harder to get up after a loss, but at the same time we all want to get better, we believe we can get better and we think we're a good football team.
"We haven't gotten the results we want, but we're going to keep fighting, keep putting in the work. I'm not worried about this team quitting, we've got pride and we still have plenty to play for. We can still finish 8-4, that's not what we wanted, but it would be a good year, and that's what we're shooting for."