KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley says the perception that his program is in bad shape right now is far from the truth.
Dooley spoke with reporters on Tuesday for the first time since the Vols' 2011 season ended with a 10-7 loss at Kentucky and without a bowl bid, saying he wanted to address the "drama" before it became a bigger problem.
Since that Nov. 26 loss, Dooley has lost four assistant coaches, had a few recruits back out from their commitments and has been criticized for how he responded to a player seeking a transfer to be closer to his ailing father.
"I think it's understandable why there could be a perception that it's not that good right now, but I'm not concerned at all about what's real. What's real is this program has been put in the last 22 months on as good of a foundation as we could ever do. I think that going forward, our team is excited.
"What a perception is is not always what the reality is on the inside."
Dooley said the reality includes a roster that's in better shape than it's been since he was hired nearly two years ago after back-to-back coaching turnovers. The Vols will return 19 starters in the coming season, and Dooley said the returning players are enthusiastic about being better leaders.
"I've never been more excited about an off-season in all of my coaching career because as disappointed as I am about how the season ended, I'm equally optimistic about our team and our program heading into next year," he said.
First he must deal with his own staff. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon left Tennessee on Monday for jobs at Washington, and the Vols have also lost special teams and tight ends coach Eric Russell, who left for Washington State, and wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who retired.
In the case of Wilcox, Sirmon and Russell, Dooley said he recognized that the trio wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest, where each was from. Dooley recently added South Carolina running backs coach and former Tennessee standout Jay Graham to his staff to fill one of the openings, but said he had no timetable for filling the other spots.
"Certainly, the quicker, the better. What we're not going to do is try and compromise who we get to try and hurry it up," he said. "It's Tennessee. It's unbelievable the amount of interest that coaches have wanting to come here. I think they understand that it's a great time to come to Tennessee. It's certainly a much better time than it was two years ago when we came to Tennessee."
Dooley received heat for putting limitations on the release of freshman wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who wanted to attend a school closer to his Saginaw, Mich., home to be near his father, who has had multiple heart attacks and is on dialysis.
The coach initially had said he would hold Arnett to his policy of limiting players from transferring to schools the Volunteers either play or compete against for recruits, and Arnett said he was told he could play at a Mid-American Conference school but not Michigan or Michigan State. On Tuesday, Dooley said he has since spoken "one-on-one" with Arnett and had decided to make an exception to allow him to play where he wanted.
The coach shot down rumors that wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers had been suspended and acknowledged the Vols struggled with team chemistry on their way to a 5-7 finish for the 2011 season. He attributed the problems to a lack of upperclassmen, younger players who weren't ready to step up as leaders and a talented freshman class who hadn't had an offseason to bond with their teammates.
"It was a challenging team dynamic from the beginning, and I knew that going into the year," Dooley said. "I don't think we're going to have any issues next year, but that's a challenge for every coach is team building."