CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee’s annual Big Orange Caravan tour, an annual journey full of fundraising banquets and speeches, kicked off Monday at the Cleveland Country Club.
Football coach Lane Kiffin, women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and men’s basketball assistant Aaron Green addressed media and fans. Kiffin and men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl will perform similar routines tonight at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
The message, as always, is optimism for the future. But this year, for a change, there isn’t much recent success to recall.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams failed to win an NCAA tournament game this past season — for the first time in the Lady Vols’ case — and Kiffin was hired to resurrect a football program that fell to 5-7 last season under longtime coach Phillip Fulmer.
“Bruce and I have had such a great working relationship, and we’ve shared a lot in the X’s and O’s, and obviously this year in frustration,” Summitt said just before the luncheon.
The 2008-09 school year was highly unusual in unfulfilled expectations for UT’s three highest-profile sports, especially considering their preseason Associated Press poll rankings — No. 7 for women’s basketball, No. 14 for men’s basketball and No. 18 for football. All three programs again ranked fourth or better nationally in attendance.
Summitt seemed confident that better times lie ahead.
“We are a family,” Summitt said. “When Coach Fulmer was there, he had his door open and helped me in recruiting. Bruce has done the same, and I’ve tried to do the same for him. And I’m sure we’ll all join in with football, and whatever they want us to do we’re going to do.
“It is a special time for us.”
Green said the men’s basketball players opted to hold four 6:30 a.m. conditioning sessions per week this spring — as opposed to once per week last year.
“I think the overall attitude has been great,” Green said. “We’ve got everybody coming back, with the exception of Ryan Childress, and I think the overall leadership of our upperclassmen has been good.
“That’s the first step in trying to get better and improving some of our weaknesses.
One reporter politely responded to Green’s comments by asking if “everybody” included All-SEC forward Tyler Smith — who according to several sources close to the program will declare for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, leaving open the possibility of playing one more college season.
“I’ll let Coach Pearl and Tyler deal with those types of things,” Green replied. “But I’m sure Coach will tell you he’ll evaluate where Tyler is going to be. And I’m sure here in the next couple of weeks, he’ll have a better sense of where he’ll fall and make a decision.”
Kiffin, as expected, spent more time on the stage than everyone other than event emcee and Voice of the Vols Bob Kesling.
Monday was Kiffin’s first time in the Cleveland area, and his first meeting with media since reviewing video of Saturday’s Orange and White game. He was pleased with his offense’s big day, but he again qualified every compliment with a reminder that UT’s defense was injury-depleted and scheme-simplified for the exhibition.
“There were some really good things,” said Kiffin, who reiterated recent comments that the Vols’ three-way starting quarterback competition could extend well into preseason camp.
“I thought our offensive line played really well,” Kiffin continued. “As we talked about before, though, there were some things that helped that happen. But they played really hard. They did turn it up a level from when they’d been in the stadium before in our scrimmages with how hard they finished, especially on offense.
“There are some things that remind you of how much work we have to get to the level we need to be at, but I was really pleased.”
Kiffin said Saturday’s biggest news was construction-altered Neyland Stadium’s announced crowd of 51,488, the second-largest in UT spring game history.
“I’ve been to three Rose Bowls and two Orange Bowls, and halfway through that Vol Walk, I kind of blanked out a little bit and didn’t know where I was,” Kiffin said. “I kind of thought I was at a national championship game because of all the energy.
“When I got in the locker room, I had to stop and remind myself that it was just a spring game.”
Kiffin said he was stunned by some remarks from his assistant coaches — some of whom “have been in this league an awful long time” — regarding Saturday’s setting.
“I thought maybe that’s what it like at other places in the SEC,” Kiffin said. “Our coaches have been to South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, and they said they’ve never been a part of anything like that. I don’t think it was the sheer numbers, because they’ve been a part of the numbers, but the energy that was there, and the emotions that the fans were pouring out was very special.”