KNOXVILLE -- Willie Mack Garza has never played or coached in the Southeastern Conference.
But Tennessee's first-year secondary coach has made Steve Spurrier throw his visor.
"A couple of times, actually," Garza said this week with a chuckle.
Garza held a similar position at Western Michigan for four seasons, including 1999 -- when his defensive backs intercepted Florida's Doug Johnson twice, returning the latter 60 yards for a touchdown to pull the Broncos within 28-20 late in the first half in Gainesville.
"They had a lot of defensive backs in there, and that was their game plan," Johnson said that day. "They were going to sit in a deep zone and pretty much force us to run the ball.
"We got some pass plays off, but we concentrated on running the ball."
Florida, as it often did with Spurrier as coach, had the last laugh. Western Michigan got within 31-26 early in the third quarter, but the Gators ran away with a 55-26 win and a program-record 37 first downs.
"Of course, we lost the game ... but we made it interesting there for a little while," Garza said.
The Broncos made it more than interesting the year before at Vanderbilt. They upset the Commodores in Nashville in Garza's second-year at WMU.
His final season with the Broncos featured a stellar group that finished fourth nationally in scoring defense, ninth in total defense and 13th in pass defense. That helped the Texan move closer to home and coach cornerbacks at TCU from 2001 to 2003.
An September 2003 arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated eventually led to Garza's resignation from TCU and resurfacing at Division II Tarleton (Texas) State. From there, the former University of Texas star defensive back moved thousands of miles from the Lone Star State to North Dakota State.
Garza became NDSU's defensive coordinator in 2005, his second year with the program. He stayed in Fargo until January, when he accepted an assistant's position at New Mexico -- a Division I program but not a Bowl Championship Series conference member.
"I was excited and ready to hit the ground running for them in Albuquerque, and I was just trying to get acclimated there," Garza said. "But then we had the national coaches convention in Nashville."
UT coordinator Monte Kiffin ran into Garza in Nashville. Garza had previously interviewed for an opening on Kiffin's NFL defensive staff at Tampa Bay, and Garza ran a similar scheme at NDSU.
"I just so happened to be in Nashville when Monte was interviewing, and we met and I interviewed and ended up getting the job," Garza said. "It was a unique transition. ... I never went back to Albuquerque. I just stayed in Tennessee and started recruiting here and just hit the ground running. And we've been running ever since then.
"It's been a great transition but also a tough transition because of the double move. But I couldn't pass up an opportunity to be at such a prestigious university like Tennessee, with the rich tradition and the fanatical fans. Being a part of all of that and working for someone like Monte Kiffin -- an icon and a living legend as a defensive coordinator -- is a wonderful opportunity."
Garza was pleased with his depth-depleted secondary in spring practice, when talented cornerback Brent Vinson (shoulder) and star safeties Eric Berry (shoulder) and Demetrice Morley (off-the-field issues) were in and out of drills with various issues. Morley was ultimately dismissed from the program, but Garza said Berry and Vinson should be ready for full contact by the first preseason practice Aug. 3.
"You miss those kinds of guys when they're gone," Garza said. "I'm excited to get those guys back full time in our secondary.
"It's going to take time for our guys to jell together and develop that chemistry, because they haven't been out there at the same time because of injuries and stuff."
A large group of talented freshman defensive backs -- led by Atlanta's Darren Myles Jr. and Louisiana's Janzen Jackson -- has also excited Garza.
"I think over spring ball, people like Eric Berry and Brent Vinson not being able to go helped our young guys," Garza said. "I think that helped our secondary, depth-wise.
"I feel like as long as we don't have any more injuries or things like that, we'll be in good shape -- especially with some of those young guys that we've recruited. I think those guys will also more than likely be factors in the depth chart as well."
Other gifted young guys will follow in the future, if Garza gets his way.
He has known several of the SEC's Texas recruiters -- including former UT assistant Trooper Taylor at Auburn, LSU running backs coach Larry Porter, Florida cornerback coach Vance Bedford and Auburn's Curtis Luper -- for years. He knows others SEC recruiters who cover his other assigned states: Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arizona.
"I know a lot of those guys are great recruiters, but I feel like I can recruit with them," Garza said. "I feel like I've got what it takes.
"I've heard stories about the grind, especially during the season, that you can't take a week off, and it's tough and all of that. But at the same time, I've always put my best foot forward and tried to prepare to the best of my abilities, and I feel like that's what I'll do here. I don't get too concerned with any of that. I've never taken a week off, and I don't feel like I'm going to start now.
"There's an unbelievable community here in Knoxville," Garza said. "They like sweet tea and soul food and hard work and football, just like people do where I'm from in Texas. They're good, blue-collar people.
"I see more similarities than differences."
As for the players Garza and his co-workers inherited?
"The guys want to win, and they're hungry," Garza said. "We're going to get back where Tennessee belongs, and that's on top."