Coach Pat Summitt talks with Bob Kesling during the Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga on Wednesday evening. Coaches Summitt and Derek Dooley made appearances at the Chattanooga Convention Center during the Big Orange Caravan visit Wednesday. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press
When Derek Dooley went through the stops of the Big Orange Caravan this time last year, he couldn’t completely or accurately answer every question about the Tennessee football team he inherited.
This time around, the Volunteers’ second-year coach has a year of stability and continuity to help him discuss his team with fans around the state.
“I think I have a better handle of where our program is and where we’re headed,” Dooley said before speaking to the crowd at the Big Orange Caravan’s stop at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday night.
“I was still in the early stages of trying to figure this team out — not that I have a good feel for this team, but I have a much better feel for all the players on our team. The first year, you did so many things outside that critical area that you’re spinning a little bit.”
Joining Dooley in Chattanooga on Wednesday were UT women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and Houston Fancher, director of operations for men’s basketball.
For a program that went through three coaches in three years and the ensuing lowered talent level and roster attrition, the stability of the same coaching staff is a welcomed sight. The biggest threat to that continuity was defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox taking a job at Texas, but Wilcox remained with the Vols.
Last spring was more of a feeling-out period in the program than a time for development and improvement. Dooley and his staff were figuring out what they had in terms of personnel and UT’s specific recruiting needs, while the players were adjusting to yet another staff and learning new offensive and defensive systems.
This spring was focused more on simply becoming a better football team.
“It’s critical,” Dooley said, “because again it goes back to what are you putting your energy on, and if you’re putting a lot of your energy on how do we do this and what do I do now and not on the players, the student-athletes and the recruiting, then you’re just wasting time. The beauty of having that continuity and structure in place is you’re able to channel all your energy on what matters most, and that’s the development of our team.”
The stability, Dooley said, is an important aspect of building his program, and it’s helped the players, staff and others involved with UT football to understand what the coach wants. It’s still just one step in the right direction of that process.
“The continuity’s important because they understand what’s important to me and the expectations, and so they’re able to do things without me saying to do them,” Dooley said. “They start becoming a part of the system, whether it’s with our player development, how we recruit and everything that we do. It makes it a lot easier, and it doesn’t mean we’re all settled in.
“I still think it takes several years to really get your program really settled in to a routine because the first year you’re surviving, and then you’re making a bunch of adjustments and the second year you’re rolling a little bit and you fine-tune for that third year — now we’ve got a system in place.”
With the end of the spring semester and the start of summer school and offseason workouts in June, the next step in the development falls in the hands of the lone new face on the Vols’ staff — strength coach Ron McKeefery.
McKeefery, known by his players as “Coach Mac,” spent time with the U.S. Army Special Forces between 10 years at South Florida and his winter arrival to UT. The Vols made tangible improvements heading into spring, but now McKeefery has two months to increase the Vols’ strength, speed and endurance.
“He’s got the pulse of the team, and if they don’t respond to him, that’s not going to help our team,” Dooley said. “Certainly he needs to be an extension of the head coach in our program, and he is. We have a phenomenal relationship, we’ve had a lot of dialogue on how we’re training our guys, we’re on the same page and I think he’s been tremendously well-received by the team.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...