It only took three years for both Joker Phillips and Derek Dooley to be dismissed from their respective jobs. There were many individual factors that lead to their firings, but it was one decision both coaches made that might have doomed them. Both Phillips and Dooley decided to switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme during their tenures. Heading into the 2012 season, Kentucky was in its second year of a switch to defensive coordinator Rick Minter’s 3-4 scheme and Tennessee in its first of Sal Sunseri’s. Kentucky finished the regular season 12th in total defense in the SEC and Tennessee finished dead last at 14th. It goes to show that you no matter how effective you are on offense, it’s tough to be a good football team if you can’t stop anyone on the defensive side of the ball.
In many respects a 3-4 defense is an ideal scheme to run, just look at the success Alabama has had in the past couple of years. Alabama sends more defensive players to the first round of the NFL draft than any other school because: a) they have a lot of talent and b) most teams run the 3-4 at the next level. If the 3-4 is your scheme it is a valuable recruiting tool. It allows you to recruit players on the basis that they would be playing in an NFL-type scheme from the beginning of their college career, making their transition to the next level easier. From a coaching standpoint, the 3-4 has a ton of benefits too. Most college quarterbacks struggle against a 3-4 scheme because it’s more complex than a 4-3 scheme. You can disguise pressure better which allows for more complex blitzes and coverages.
Obviously, both Dooley and Phillips had a vision of doing what Nick Saban has done at Alabama. The problem is that a scheme change takes time to implement. Switching defenses requires three years. It takes about two years to recruit the correct players and by year three you should see improvement. Both coaches were fired before they got to see their vision carried out because of the lack of promise it showed throughout the 2012 season. In today’s college football game you can be on the hot seat quicker than ever, as we can see by Auburn’s Gene Chizik fired two season removed from a National Championship.
Both Kentucky and Tennessee had pretty good team defense rankings before the switched schemes. In 2011, Tennessee finished 7th in total defense in the SEC, whereas Kentucky was 12th in their first year of the scheme. In 2010, before the Wildcats switched to a 3-4, they finished 5th in the SEC in total defense. It makes you wonder if both coaches had stayed with what was working in the first place if they would still be in their former jobs.