KNOXVILLE — The walls of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex are thick, but they're far from soundproof.
As the University of Tennessee football team enters the final month of the regular season, the Volunteers must keep the outside distractions from winding a way inside, although questions and speculation publicly swirl about the program's future.
Embattled third-year coach Derek Dooley said last month he mentions it to his players, and it's a message he's likely reiterated to his team after a winless October stretch.
"He doesn't really speak much on the outside chatter, but he just talks about us being a close-knit bunch and us staying together," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "We've got to be together no matter what anybody says on the outside. We're a real close team.
"We don't really think about the distractions on the outside or what the chatter is about coaching changes and all that. We've got to live for the moment. Whatever happens happens, but we're just living for it right now and trying to get to a bowl game."
It's a similar November quest for Tennessee, which has entered the season's final four games with a losing record in each of Dooley first two seasons. Unlike those instances, there now is an abundance of external noise about his job security, and a chunk of the fan base might be more focused on that than the four games remaining on the schedule. The potential distractions began increasing and picked up steam after losses to Mississippi State and Alabama.
Players have answered questions about them the past few weeks, and the responses have echoed each other.
"We just don't worry about any of the external factors," defensive lineman Maurice Couch said. "Everybody has their opinion, but that's something we can't control and can't worry about. We just stick together as a family and don't let nobody break us up and [we] just play for each other."
After a 38-35 loss at South Carolina last week, Dooley reminded his team to ignore the distractions and keep the focus centered on the team and moving forward to the next game.
"He said something about it," Couch said. "He was just basically telling us he was proud of us and how we competed. He was just telling us to stick together and don't let anything bring us down."
It's easier said than done, but the Vols seemingly have stayed on course and kept their morale high. Players repeatedly have dispelled any notions of internal fracture and noted that their collective spirits haven't dropped. They've seemed to embrace Dooley's notion of their final-month performance defining the season and insist this team is different from last year, when November included a 42-point loss to Arkansas and the program's first loss to Kentucky in 26 years.
"We won't know that answer until whenever our last game is, so it really doesn't matter what I've seen in the first eight [games]," Dooley said this week. "I've seen a totally different team. To watch the things that have hit us in the Georgia game and the Mississippi State game and this [South Carolina] game, and to see us just claw and scrap and have a chance to win in the last drive, we didn't have a team like that last year at all.
"Yeah, I've seen it, but none of that matters if we can't do it in the last four and do it on Saturday. It's really to pointless to say we're a different team. We've got to prove it."
The Vols must continue to prove their leadership has improved from last season, and Lathers acknowledged his big role in that effort. He played well against the Gamecocks, when he had 15 tackles to go with a sack and a an interception in the fourth quarter. The oft-injured fifth-year senior said he's feeling healthier and healthier, and his performance suggested it.
"It's the best one of my career so far," Lathers said, "and I'm trying to build on that and just keep this team motivated."
"That was awesome, just to see Herm out there juiced and making plays here and there," sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "He really deserved it. He's been through so much and put so much into this program, and I'm proud of him and happy for him.
"His presence is always felt even if he's not on the field. A lot of guys look up to him, and I look him up to him as a person and a football player. He's someone you want to be around and someone you want to learn from."
Lathers admitted "it's real difficult" to escape the outside distractions.
"We're trying to manage it on the inside," Lathers said, "and I think we're doing a good job right now and staying together and staying together as one."
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 ...