KNOXVILLE — The players aren't the only ones in the Tennessee football program having to manage distractions.
It's a similar challenge for the coaching staff, most of whom haven't been with the Volunteers for a year.
The uncertainty of third-year head coach Derek Dooley's future is felt by his assistants, who are trying to remained focus on preparing their players for the season's final two games.
"You know what, all you can do is go out and do the best that you can do," veteran defensive line coach John Palermo said at midweek. "You can't worry about what other people think, and I've been blessed through my career I haven't had to go through this very often.
"I have had to go through it before. All you can do is stay focused on the task at hand and try to bring the kids closer together. That's all you can do. There's only so many things you can control."
What those coaches, who have maintained their professionalism amid questions about their own futures in wake of Dooley's expected ouster, can control is their individual position units. The players have the season's lone remaining goal -- playing and winning in a bowl game -- in their crosshairs. That requires a win at Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday night before the Vols can look to avenging last season's embarrassing loss to Kentucky in the regular-season finale.
"I think they've been fine," Palermo said. "I thought they were good last week, and I thought they were good this week in meetings. I have nothing but good things to say about them because again, at this particular point, they're dealing with some issues that you don't want to have to deal with, but by the same token, they can't worry about that.
"They've got to worry about how they play on Saturday and how they act."
Some players have talked about the distractions being difficult to manage, but defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said he's not seen a change in the players' attitudes.
"I think they've done a great job," he said. "The kids have been in our meetings, and they've been bright-eyed, they've been going about their business and they're doing what they're supposed to do. That's what I see."
In nearly 40 years of coaching, Palermo has seen plenty of ups and downs. He was an assistant on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship coaching staff and made three trips to the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin in 1993, 1994 and 2000. He also was on Miami's staff in 2006, the season Larry Coker was fired as the Hurricanes' coach.
"To me, it's not any different this week than what it was the first week or the second week or the third week: You go in there, you coach, you try to do the best job you can," Palermo said. "You pay attention to detail.
"One of the kids, they go, 'Coach, you yelled at me the other day and you hurt my feelings.' I said, 'Guess what? You hurt my feelings every time you go out there and screw up.' It's one of those deals. I'm not going to let it go. I'm not just going to say it's OK because of the situation we're in. You've got to go out and coach them just like you believe you should coach them."
Until they're told otherwise, Tennessee's coaches, including the seven who jumped onboard during the offseason, are going to coach. Their focus remains on the next two Saturdays.
"We work right now for the University of Tennessee, so we're going to work every single day," Sunseri said. "I've been here every morning at 5:30 and haven't left until 11 o'clock at night. That's what we do."
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 ...