GREENEVILLE, Tenn. | The first question coach Bruce Pearl took Monday from a fan at a lunch stop on Tennessee's annual Big Orange Caravan coaches' tour had nothing to do with basketball.
Instead, Pearl was asked for a prediction on the coming football season under new coach Lane Kiffin, whom he's been sharing an RV with a few days a week for the past three weeks as they have traveled around the state.
"They'll be very well-coached, I can tell you that," Pearl said with a smile.
Though Tennessee has been putting on the Big Orange Caravan tour for two decades, the interest has been especially high this spring with Kiffin on board.
The big orange faithful have snapped up tickets for each of the 15 stops, which include visits to cities large and small in Tennessee and trips to Florida, Ohio and Texas.
The caravan has always been a big draw, but, unlike years past, the event has almost completely sold out. A Monday morning breakfast in Sevierville drew 300, the Greeneville lunch was sold out at 175 and a dinner in Kingsport was expected to draw 325 fans.
During each stop, fans have a chance to meet both coaches, take photos, get autographs and listen to Vols' play-by-play announcer Bob Kesling interview each coach about their teams.
At Monday's stop in Greeneville, balls autographed by Pearl, Kiffin and women's basketball coach Pat Summitt were being auctioned. Just before the event started, Pearl's basketball had reached a bid of $70, Summitt's was at $125 and Kiffin's football was going for $150.
Kiffin says it's the fans that make Tennessee such a desirable place to coach, and he's enjoyed getting to meet them during the tour.
"Lately, we've had a lot of good ideas come from our fans about plays we should be running, what we should do, who should be our quarterback, who should be our left tackle," Kiffin quipped before Monday's stop in Greeneville, about 65 miles east of Knoxville.
He wouldn't make any promises to fans about how many games the Vols would win this season, but he pledged to work hard and get the best athletes on the field come fall.
Kiffin told the fans not to worry about quarterback B.J. Coleman's departure, which left Tennessee with only two bona fide quarterbacks on the roster, or the lack of a clear starter at the position
"You keep that up, you won't have a starting job," Pearl shouted from the audience in response.
The tour has been Kiffin's first chance to spend a lot of one-on-one time with Pearl, who has been the star of the Big Orange Caravan for the past few years.
Pearl said he and Kiffin talk about recruiting, building their staffs, relationships with players, academics, discipline and other topics that are mutual between the two sports.
"From a sports standpoint there are some things that a running back has to do looking through a hole that a point guard has to do running a transition fast break. It's always fun to talk coach talk," Pearl said.
Pearl also noted he and Kiffin have something else in common. When he was hired four years ago, Pearl pledged to become the most hated coach in the Southeastern Conference.
"I managed to do it in a year. Coach Kiffin managed to do it in a week," he said. Kiffin received a lot of press in the week after he was hired for promising a win over Florida this season and for comments he made about South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
Don Davis drives the coaches from one stop to another in a Fleetwood Bounder motorhome, much as he's been doing for the Big Orange Caravan for the past 20 years.
The RV, provided by Chilhowee RV in Louisville, Tenn., is a 39-foot diesel pusher, similar to the tour buses that musicians use. It's appropriate as Kiffin claims traveling with Pearl is "like being with a rock star."
Davis said this year's caravan definitely has a different feel to it with a seasoned basketball coach and a new football coach on board.
"We used to say it was (former football coach Phillip) Fulmer and whoever the basketball coach is," Davis said, referring to the Vols' heavy turnover at basketball coach before Pearl's hire.