Milligan College hosts VolsDerthick Hall at Milligan College will provide meeting and film rooms for the University of Tennessee football team when the Vols arrive in August for a week of preseason football practice. Milligan College is located near Johnson City. Staff photo by Patrick Brown
Milligan College president Bill Greer
Milligan College dean of students Mark Fox
Both Mark Fox, Milligan College's dean of students, and Derek Dooley, Tennessee's football coach, admit the small Christian school's hosting of the Volunteers' football team for a week is an imperfect situation. But Milligan has made adjustments to create a secluded environment where the Vols can accomplish their goals. Some of those changes include:
• Blowers Boulevard, a public road that runs through the heart of Milligan's beautiful campus, will be closed "to help [UT] keep the relatively closed environment." As part of the tightened campus security, anyone entering campus, including media covering camp and Milligan's own students and athletes, must present identification. There's more monitoring and patrolling of the campus.
• Female athletes on the soccer and volleyball teams who live in Hart Hall have had their living accommodations changed so the Vols can stay in that dormitory hall. For its out-of-state athletes in that dorm, Milligan has rented off-campus storage for their personal items.
• Milligan's men's and women's soccer and volleyball teams -- all of which are practicing during UT's stay -- are training off campus. Those coaches and players will commute to nearby locations.
• UT is bringing most of its own weight equipment since Milligan's weight room is too small. Milligan's own foodservice employees will cook meals for the Vols, but UT's nutritionists and dietitians, led by Allison Maurer, have worked with Milligan's workers on the menu and quantity of those meals.
• Milligan will have to do a quick flip of campus when UT leaves on Aug. 16. Fall-semester classes at the 1,200-student school begin two days later.
ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — Bill Greer was well aware of fellow Milligan College alumnus Mark Fox's sense of humor.
So when Fox told the small Christian college's president that Tennessee's football team was exploring the option of spending a week on campus for a week of preseason training camp, Greer was understandably skeptical.
"He's a big joker," Greer said of Milligan's vice president for student development and dean of students. "We never know whether to believe him or not. I thought, 'Whatever, Mark, maybe the Titans are coming next.'"
Turns out neither Fox nor Tennessee were kidding.
The Volunteers will spend five days next month on the 195-acre campus located off a two-lane highway and nestled between Johnson City and Elizabethton. With football and not much else to do, the trip will allow UT's team to bond and sharpen their focus on the upcoming season. The program also will move its offices from the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex into the shiny new nearly $50 million football training center.
Though NFL teams hold their training camps in similar locales annually, it's rare situation for college teams to move away from campus for practice, but the Vols are looking forward to the experience.
"I think they're excited about it," third-year coach Derek Dooley said. "It's something they hadn't done. It's hard, but it's fun.
"Every day's going to be an adventure, and there'll be 48 things we didn't think about that we've got to go on the fly. I'm going to tell the team, 'Things are going to happen there that are all different, and everything is going to be premised around your attitude when you get on the bus.' You can be a negative guy and complain about everything, or you can embrace it as an awesome opportunity."
UT's decision to move part of its preseason camp was announced in May, but discussions between the two schools began more than a year before that. It began with a conversation between UT strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery, UT associate athletic director and football administrator David Blackburn and Fox, who handles all the student-life aspects at the 1,200-student NAIA school.
Yet the Vols elected not to pursue moving camp. UT was without an athletic director at the time, thus electing to put it off. Fox, who played baseball at Milligan in the late 1970s and became the school's dean in 1998, essentially moved on.
"I didn't think much else about it or didn't know if it would ever happen again," he said. "But then we reconnected after the first of the year and have been working on it steadily since that point. It's kind of a dating process."
Fox said he's in touch with someone from UT every other day "at minimum." Though moving an entire college football team off campus for practice is rare, Milligan's campus isn't a summer ghost town. Fox said the school hosts 4,000 people most summers for various overnight camps.
Unlike those camps, though, setting up UT's move required more discussions.
"It just started out talking about what they were looking for, what they wanted to accomplish, the kinds of facilities they would need, the kinds of support systems they would need and all that," Fox said. "Then it was showing what we had to offer and the give-and-take process. I always felt like that on a personal level we connected with each other and got along well."
Yet Milligan, which competes in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, has no football team. Its weight room is the size of a small classroom. There was no legitimate dressing room for a 105-player Southeastern Conference football team.
With Milligan's two full-size soccer fields, though, the Vols will have more outdoor practice space there than on their own campus. Milligan's academic buildings provide the meeting space. The players' living arrangements will be similar to Gibbs Hall, where many athletes stay on UT's campus.
Dooley, who visited Milligan last month, said he had just two requirements.
"Our administration did the shopping, not me," he said. "All I told them was what [were] the most important qualities. I knew we couldn't find the perfect place.
"My biggest concern was the field space and the quality of the fields and our ability to meet. As long as you've got those two things, I can make adjustments on dorms and all that other stuff. If you've got a good area to practice and you've got a good area to watch the film, what else do you need?"
"Have you lost your mind?"
Fox received an interesting reaction from Milligan's administration when he brought UT's possible visit to their attention.
"'Have you lost your mind?'" he recalled. "Their next reaction was, 'Has Tennessee lost their mind?' But as we talked about it, there was really quite a lot of enthusiasm.
"There really wasn't a lot of resistance."
Fox said the "biggest issue" would be the reaction of the coaches and players on the Buffaloes' men's and women's soccer and volleyball teams, all of which are preparing for their own respective seasons while the Vols are on campus.
"Inevitably your initial reaction is a selfish one of what are we going to do," said Lisa Buckley, Milligan's women's soccer coach. "After a minute I figured out the bigger picture, that this is fantastic for Milligan College as a whole. We're excited about it.
"[The players' reaction has] mostly been good. There's a slight inconvenience for them, but it will be good for us as well to get away from the monotony of campus and the things that they're used to. Half of them think they're going to get new boyfriends here."
The original idea likely began with McKeefery, who was South Florida's strength coach when the Bulls spent part of their preseason training camp at Dodgertown, the former spring-training home of Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla.. Fox sought advice from Pat O'Conner, the minor-league baseball president who oversees Dodgertown's operations since the franchise moved its spring training to Arizona in 2008. But a complex built for professionals and a small local college are very different places.
Fox has been around college athletics for nearly 30 years, and his son, Ben, has coached at Bryant University in Rhode Island and with UT cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley at Huntingdon College in Alabama. His daughter went to Wofford, where the NFL's Carolina Panthers have held training camp since the franchise's inception in 1994. Fox called there as well, since his daughter had done a work-study in Wofford's athletic office.
"I think any time you get into a situation like that" Fox said, "you just want to say, 'Hey, this is what we can do,' and show my individual commitment to them as a representative of the school in as positive as interaction as we can make it. Ultimately that's what we've got to do for them is to make it as least disruptive as we can to their normal preparations and make it an environment that helps them produce a better football team.
"We have to depend on them to tell us what they need, but then we have to respond to that and anticipate some things based on our environment that they may not be aware of."
Remember the Titans
UT left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson thought of another Titans team when he learned of the Vols' impending week-long field trip.
"I think of 'Remember the Titans,'" the sophomore said. "That was the movie I grew up watching when they went off to another [campus]. I'm going to be happy to experience that.
"Guys have never done it before, so it's going to be a great experience for everybody."
Other Vols share Richardson's intrigue of the unknown.
"I didn't know what to think at first," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "I was like, 'What are we getting ourselves into?' The more and more we talk about it, it should be a fun experience."
UT's 200-member contingent is bringing two 18-wheel trailer trucks full of equipment, including what will serve as a mobile weight room. There's no place to do laundry. Fox said he's not sure what the Vols will do for goalposts, but there is a Plan B in case of inclement weather.
Dooley admitted the whole thing will be a "headache" for UT's support staff, but it'll be all football all the time for coaches and players.
"What I also told them is when you come back I hope you're going to appreciate what Tennessee gives you every day," the coach said. "You're not going to get that over there. Those dorms look a little different, facilities look a little different and our guys take it a little bit for granted because this is all they know.
"They've got Gatorade any time they want. That doesn't seem like a big deal, but we couldn't afford it when I was [coach] at Louisiana Tech. It was turn on that hose to get a little water."
For Milligan, the public-relations and financial reasons made hosting the Vols an easy call. The school boasts a close-knit community, which includes a handful of alumni that have returned to their alma mater like Buckley, Fox and Greer, who earned his Ph.D. from UT during the Vols' football heyday in the late 1990s. Milligan's goal in hosting UT is simple.
"To the extent that we can be a place where they can come and prepare, have a bit of a retreat, do some training and hopefully get ready for a good year," Greer said, "I'm all for it."
And that's no joke.
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 ...