CLEVELAND, Tenn. | At first glance, Tennessee fans might not have a lot to get excited about heading into the 2010 season.
The Volunteers have their third coach in three years, and the graduation and departure of a number of key players has left the team with hardly any depth. Yet the fans don't seem to be deterred by the situation.
“Our fans are the spirit of our whole organization,” first-year coach Derek Dooley said Thursday. “I don't have to sell Tennessee.”
They've been turning out all week in places like Memphis, Atlanta and even a partially flooded Jackson, Tenn., to meet Dooley during the Big Orange Caravan coaches' tour.
Dooley discovered just how much the support the program has in late January, when he attended his first Vols basketball game. The basketball program had just been embarrassed by the arrests of four players and the football program stunned by the departure of coach Lane Kiffin.
“We went through as tough of a time as any time in our athletic program with what happened in basketball and what happened in football over the winter. To see 22,000 come out and watch the (basketball) team play and how welcoming and gracious everyone's been to me shows how passionate and how gracious and unconditionally supportive the Tennessee nation is,” Dooley said.
Instead of trying to stir up excitement about the program – something that was always at the top of Kiffin's list – Dooley has been trying to get a sense from fans about what they're looking for.
“It's no different than any company. You're here to serve your customers, and they're our customers,” he said at a lunch stop at the Cleveland Country Club. “We certainly want them to feel good about our program. We want them to understand who we are and what we're about, and I think it's important that we listen to them.”
Dooley has asked the Vols what they think the fans want, and the overwhelming response from the players has been discipline, both on and off the field. That's exactly the feedback Dooley has gotten from the big orange faithful during the caravan tour.
Will Jones, a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said he is less concerned about the future of the Vols program now that he's heard Dooley speak Thursday.
“I think he's got good leadership and good spirit for the team,” Jones said. “I've been concerned four about two years, three years now. I'm not as concerned as I was.”
Dooley doesn't try to play down the less-than-ideal situation he's found himself in with a program suffering from depth and confidence after a tumultuous two seasons. He's busy trying to find answers.
When one school-aged boy in the audience questioned him about which young players he'd put on the field in the fall, Dooley instead joked, ‘If you can get your math done, we might play you next year.”