Doug Dickey lived and breathed some of Tennessee’s football glory days, and he would like nothing better than to see those days return.
Dickey, 85, retired and living in Jacksonville, still loves Tennessee football. He coached the Vols to the Litkenhous national championship in 1967 when the Vols finished 9-2. USC, 9-1, was declared the national champs in the AP, Coaches, FWAA and NFF polls.
He also was Tennessee’s athletic director when the Vols won a consensus national championship in 1998 with Phillip Fulmer as head coach.
Fulmer, fired as Tennessee’s coach in 2008, is now UT’s athletic director, taking the job Dec. 1 after John Currie’s tenure ended earlier the same day with a paid suspension that will eventually be a firing.
Fulmer last week hired Alabama defensive Fcoordinator Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee’s coach to succeed Butch Jones, who was fired with two games left in his fifth season.
Pruitt’s hiring ended an exhaustive search and wild sequence of events rarely, if ever, seen in college sports.
Dickey was among those applauding the hiring of Fulmer.
“I think under the circumstances, Dr. (Beverly) Davenport and President Joe DiPietro made a great decision to ask (Fulmer) to come back in and take it over,” Dickey says.
“I think it was an excellent move on their part, and Phillip will do a wonderful job of putting the family back together there in a way that will be a comfort zone for both the coach and the fans.”
UT fans could use some comfort after the Currie fiasco with one coach after another turning down the job, Currie’s near hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and Currie interviewing Washington State coach Mike Leach in Los Angeles without the approval of Davenport.
Dickey didn’t want to revisit any of Currie’s coaching chase.
“I don’t have any take on it,” Dickey says. “I wasn’t close enough to have any take on it.”
Pruitt, who signed a six-year contract worth $3.8 million per year, has never been a college head coach but established himself as a top defensive coordinator at Florida State (2013), Georgia (2014-15) and Alabama (2016-17).
He was on staff of three national championship teams at Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012) and was defensive coordinator for Florida State’s undefeated national championship team in 2013.
Pruitt was chosen National Recruiter of the Year in 2012 by 247Sports.
“I think he’s a fine choice,” Dickey adds. “He seems to have all the credentials of success that anybody could possibly have as an assistant coach, so he’s ready to take the next step, and let’s hope it works out at Tennessee.”
It worked out for Dickey at Tennessee.
The former Florida quarterback (1951-53) helped turn the Vols’ program around while establishing some Tennessee football traditions that still exist.
His first UT team in 1964 went 4-5-1, 1-5-1 in the SEC. Two years later, the Vols finished 9-2, won the SEC with a 6-0 record and won the Litkenhous national championship. Dickey won another SEC championship in 1969 when the Vols went 5-1 in the conference and 9-2 overall after a 14-13 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
During his time at Tennessee, Dickey established three longstanding traditions for Vols football:
-- The “Power T” on helmets, which he began in 1964
-- The painting of end zones in orange-and-white checkerboard, also started in 1964
-- The team running through the marching band’s “T” formation before games, which he began in 1965.
“I have a lot of wonderful memories of Tennessee,” Dickey recalls. “That’s a whole book. Obviously, when you’ve won some championships, those teams have a way of sticking with you, probably better than others, but at the same time, there are a lot of players I’ll always remember.
“We had about an eight-year run there with mine and the first couple of years with Bill Battle, and then when Peyton (Manning) was there (playing quarterback from 1994-97), there was another seven- to eight-year run that was pretty good.
“Those are the memories I have of the really good, top-flight performances year in and year out of success, and the program’s national visibility as a top contender in the top 10 (nationally).
Those are the things I think about when I think about Tennessee.”
Dickey left to become Florida’s coach after the 1969 season, spending the next nine years (1970-78) in the position. He then coached one year at Colorado’s (1979) before returning to Tennessee as athletic director in 1985.
One of Tennessee’s best football runs was from 1993 to 1999 when Dickey was athletic director, Fulmer was head coach and Joe Johnson was university president.
UT has lacked such top-to-bottom stability since then, and Dickey explained it needs to return for the football program to be successful.
“It’s very important that that happens,” Dickey says. “I think John Currie had done a nice job of trying to bring everybody together. It just didn’t work out right at the end there, and so now we have what we have, and we can’t look back any farther than Phillip.
“Phillip is in the position to be a uniting force among the active people on campus, both the administration and the employees of the athletic department and the coaches, and he will also help bring together a very positive note to the fan base.
“I think the new coach (Pruitt) certainly has a wonderful leader in the athletic director there to help him.”
Pruitt, a native of Rainsville, Alabama, was a starting safety at Middle Tennessee State University for two years (1993-94) before transferring to Alabama, where he was a reserve defensive back for two years (1995-96) playing for Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings.
After serving as a graduate assistant at Alabama for one year (1997), Pruitt became a high school assistant and coached under his father, Dale Pruitt, at Fort Payne (Alabama) High, and Plainview (Alabama) High, before coaching Alabama state power Hoover High.
Pruitt has spent his entire career as a defensive coach. Tennessee hasn’t had a head coach with a defensive background since Gen. Robert Neyland (1926-34, 1936-40 and 1946-52).
“Well, if you’re a defensive coach, certainly you’ll have to hire an offensive coordinator to work with him,” Dickey points out.
“But the head coach is on both sides of the ball along with the kicking game, too, so the head coach is responsible for all of it and what happens or fails to happen. (Pruitt) will be the one who selects his assistants to help him.”
Dickey retired as Tennessee’s athletic director in July of 2003, and UT has had four ADs since then: Mike Hamilton (2003-11), Dave Hart (2011-2017), Currie (April 1-Dec. 1) and Fulmer.
While keeping up with Tennessee football, Dickey stays busy with his 12 grandchildren. Three of them have been or are quarterbacks in college: Dallas Dickey at West Georgia (2012-15), Rylan Wells at Jacksonville University (2013-17) and Rogan Wells at Valdosta State (2016-present).
Dallas Dickey is the son of Daryl Dickey, former Tennessee quarterback (1982-85) and former head coach at West Georgia (2008-13).
“It’s wonderful following all the success that those boys have had,” Doug Dickey says. “It’s exciting. I’ve enjoyed watching that.”
Dickey would love to watch Tennessee football make a comeback under Pruitt. UT hasn’t been to the SEC Championship game since 2007 and hasn’t won an SEC Championship game since 1998.
Tennessee is coming off the first eight-loss season and the first winless SEC season in the program’s history.
And it has had three failed coaching hires since Fulmer was fired: Lane Kiffin (2009), Derek Dooley (2010-12) and Jones (2013-17).
“Certainly, it would be a very, very, very wonderful feeling to see Tennessee do well,” Dickey acknowledges.
“I pull for ’em, and I hope that they do their very best to get back there, and I think they have the kind of leadership that certainly gives them a chance to get there.
“Both Phillip and Coach Pruitt have been there, so when you have people that have been there at that level, then they have the ability to try to put that back together again.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.