KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee at Martin is not a dream destination for any football player or coach.
UTM head coach Jason Simpson didn’t enter the business dreaming of landing his current job in a tiny town near the Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas borders. His players didn’t dream about being Skyhawks from the first time they donned pads.
Such is life for many people associated with the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
But despite a successful, three-year stint as UT-Chattanooga’s assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Simpson had just one Division I head-coaching offer in 2006. And despite successful high school careers, many of the Skyhawks had just one D-I scholarship offer.
So there they are in little Martin, Tenn., and playing as visitors Saturday in mammoth Neyland Stadium.
And they seem thrilled about it.
“I use myself as a prime example,” Simpson said. “Five years ago, UT-Martin is the only place that would give me an opportunity to be a head football coach. Since then, I’ve had other opportunities, but this is where I chose to stay and where I chose to be. And in recruiting, [UT] can only take 25 [players a year]. They’re only going to take one or two quarterbacks, and one or two running backs. It’s the same way with Alabama and Auburn and all those teams, so not everybody gets that opportunity.
“But no matter where you get your opportunity — if this is your only opportunity, make this your Dallas Cowboys, make this your Notre Dame. Be proud that you’re here and give it your best effort.”
That preaching has been taken as gospel. UTM, which lost 45 consecutive Ohio Valley Conference games in the 1990s, has a 26-20 overall record and a 20-11 league mark for Simpson’s four seasons. The Skyhawks won the OVC and went to the FCS playoffs with a 9-2 record in his first season, and their 2008 season ended one blocked field goal (as time expired) from a second conference crown.
“I don’t know a whole lot, and there’s a whole lot more guys who are smarter than me at X’s and O’s,” Simpson said. “There’s a lot of guys that had bigger and better resumes than me to get this job. I’m kind of a no-name. But I would hope that we’ve built a belief system around here ... that wherever we go, our kids are going to go compete and believe they have a chance to win and believe in their coaches to give us schemes to win.”
“Every time we step on the field, we expect to win the game,” Skyhawks senior All-America linebacker Josh Bey said. “I don’t care who you are and who you’re playing, the mission is to win the game.
“We’re playing to win this game Saturday, and if you don’t think we can win this game, why even go over there?”
Meaning against the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium.
“It is possible,” said junior Derek Carr, whose Saturday start at quarterback will be the first of his college career. “Just because they’re a Division I-A school doesn’t mean we can’t compete with them.
“Whoever shows up and plays better will win the game, just like any other game.”
The Skyhawks made big believers out of Auburn in 2008. They went to Jordan-Hare Stadium and fought the Tigers to a 20-20 tie through 39 of the game’s 60 minutes.
“Auburn probably wasn’t ready for them, and the next thing they knew they were in a four-quarter war,” first-year UT coach Derek Dooley said. “They’ve been on that stage, and it’s not going to faze them.”
The Tigers ultimately needed two long Kodi Burns touchdown runs against a depth-depleted, worn-out Skyhawks defense to pull away for a 37-20 win.
“Yeah, that was a good game for us. We competed,” Bey said. “If you look back on that now and think about it, we should feel good. We should know we can play like that again.”
And while Simpson said his current roster might not be quite as talented at the top as those 2008 Skyhawks, he said it has much more quality depth.
“Skill talent on offense is young with a lot of guys people don’t know about, but we certainly have developed to where we look the part now,” Simpson said. “Even a couple of years ago when we won nine games and went to the playoffs, we had 15 good players on offense and 15 good players on defense, and we had a chance as long as nobody got injured.
“Although there’s probably 40 new players on this team from that ’08 team, our seniors all played in that [Auburn] game. We’ll see. We’ll certainly try to draw from that and learn from that experience, and take those expectations into that stadium. Hopefully our leaders are telling our young guys, ‘This is what it’s going to sound like. This is what you’re going to see.’
“Maybe that will help us get over some early-time jitters.”
UTM’s stance for Saturday is no different than it was when Simpson arrived. It’s just on a bigger stage.
“I hope my guys take after their coach,” Simpson said. “I hope they know what kind of opportunity we have Saturday.”
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