KNOXVILLE -- A year ago the line of Big Orange believers stretched from the Tennessee football practice field all the way back to Thompson-Boling Arena. All for a chance to get autographs five hours before the Orange and White game.
Actually, mostly, sadly (as it turns out today) they had come -- more than 51,000 strong before the day ended -- for a chance to get one autograph from some mercenary coach whose first name sounds very much like Lame.
"Yeah, I got snookered initially," 36-year-old Mike Lawson said Saturday morning atop the same lush grass where Lane Kiffin wore out a truckload of Sharpies 12 months earlier.
"I was blown away like everybody else. Now I'm just happy he's gone. Derek Dooley's more mature, more intelligent and he's a Southern boy. I'm excited."
Let's be blunt. Saturday's excitement over the Dooley regime was a wee bit muted compared to last year's Kiffin carnival. Some 35,891 -- the third largest UT spring game crowd ever -- may eventually have filed into construction-compromised Neyland Stadium, but it felt more like a church social than a tent revival.
In fact, the loudest cheer of the day may have been when former Volunteers linebacker Al Wilson -- the emotional leader of the 1998 national champion squad -- was introduced at halftime.
Or as 42-year-old Bryan Cutler of Knoxville noted in recalling last year as he collected autographs with 9-year-old son Brant, "I was kind of drinking the Kool-Aid like everybody else."
But come January the sugar high ended. The Lame Train left Big Orange Country for Southern Cal, leaving UT to pick up the pieces less than a month from signing day.
Asked to describe Kiffin's tenure at that time, Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton curtly replied, "Brief."
The recovery might not be so brief, however -- for either the players or the fans. As Dooley noted after the White's 16-7 victory, "The fans have been through a lot over the last two years."
And they could endure a lot more. Not that they seem to mind.
"I'm hoping for 12-0," Michelle Phillips of Dunlap said. "But I'll be happy no matter what."
"They're a young team," said 22-year-old Adam Decker. "Give Dooley five years to bring in his own players and install his own system. I'm keeping my mind open."
Added his father-in-law, 54-year-old Richard Cothren of Fayetteville, Tenn.: "I know we'll be all right. Kiffin brought too much attention to himself. I think Dooley will keep the focus on the players."
This is not to say that Decker and Cothren were completely against Kiffin.
"He could get in people's heads," Decker said. "He made bigger rivalries, a better TV experience, more exposure for the league."
Said Cothren: "It's a business. If someone was willing to give me $2- to $3 million more, I'd leave, too."
Besides, said Decker, "That was his dream job and she's (wife Layla) very Hollywood. She wants to lay on the beach or by the pool all day."
The Vols look like a team capable of defending all day. Alas, they also looked like a team in search of an offense, which may have explained eight punts in the opening half.
Or as rising McCallie School sixth grader King Jemison observed, "Maybe they're just trying to get a really good punter to want to come to Tennessee."
Whatever the reason, 54-year-old Keith Freeman -- who lives in Atlanta but graduated from Chattanooga's Kirkman High in 1974 -- can live with the rebuilding effort.
"I'm excited about Dooley," he said. "He has character and class. All I heard last year was how we had a coach with no class."
Standing next to Freeman was 48-year-old Darrell Roden, who lives in Cleveland. While Freeman predicted a 7-5 season, Roden was holding out for 8-4.
But either way, he said, "We're Big Orange fans and we're going to be Big Orange fans until we pass away."
And that's something no coach, however classless or clueless or characterless, can change.
E-mail Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...