KNOXVILLE — It ended the same winning way in which it began.
But it's everything in between that the Tennessee football team most likely will remember about the 2012 season.
Six days after third-year coach Derek Dooley was dismissed, the Volunteers finished the program's third consecutive losing season with a win Saturday afternoon, beating Kentucky 37-17 iat Neyland Stadium for their first Southeastern Conference win of the season.
"Tough," interim coach Jim Chaney said twice when asked to sum up the season.
"I don't know. I seldom get an opportunity to reflect," he continued. "Right now is not a time of reflection for me. It's been a tough one, I can say that."
At least it ended with smiles, as Tennessee accomplished its goal of playing for the 13 seniors, some of whom have been through three official head coaches, two interim coaches and dozens of assistants in their careers.
Many of those seniors played a role in avenging last season's streak-busting loss to the same Wildcats in Lexington. Receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera caught touchdown passes, and cornerback Prentiss Waggner and linebacker Herman Lathers combined for seven tackles.
Nearly all of the seniors showed some emotion during their pregame recognitions.
"It was definitely emotional for me," said Rogers, who made seven of his nine career touchdown receptions this season. "I'm just glad we got a win for this program. I think it was very important for these younger guys: It's always good to end on a win.
"We've been thrown a lot of different curveballs here. I think we've stuck together well as a unit. I know we didn't get the results, but I think we laid a good foundation for this team as they move into next season."
Tennessee's offense again was productive, piling up 457 yards and averaging 7 yards per play. The Vols' SEC-worst defense allowed 412 yards to Kentucky's league-worst offense but made two key fourth-down stops. The Wildcats also missed a field goal in the final game for fired coach Joker Phillips, who unlike Dooley elected to coach out the season.
"Originally, I didn't want to be a distraction and make them go through this," he said. "I wanted those guys to have their time. I'm so appreciative of the way they handled it."
Kentucky's players carried Phillips off the field on their shoulders after beating Samford last week, while the Vols were getting whipped by Vanderbilt. Dooley was dismissed the following morning after a 15-21 overall and 4-19 SEC record in three-plus seasons. The Vols battled through a tough week and were ready to get on the field Saturday.
"At the beginning of the week, it was a little rugged," Chaney said. "Without any question, dealing with change is difficult, but as the week progressed, throughout the week, by Friday I felt like we were close to being ready to go play a football game. The unknown of how they would react in an environment of an SEC ballgame was what I was unsure about.
"I felt as the week was going, the healing was happening naturally, and by the time we got to Saturday ... those kids wanted to go out and put their teammates out with victories."
Tennessee scored on its opening possession of each half, and junior quarterback Tyler Bray threw four touchdown passes. After Kentucky failed to capitalize on a chance to take a third-quarter lead, the Vols scored twice. With only themselves to play for and the uncertainty of Dooley's future settled, the Vols seemed to play looser.
"People stopped asking us questions," receiver Justin Hunter said.
"We were really relaxed out there," Rivera added. "We had one goal in mind, and that was to get a win. We were just out there playing like Pop Warner kids."
It's a message Chaney delivered throughout the week. He reminded the Vols simply to play the game they enjoy playing. With two coaching staffs on their ways out the door, he said it was the "purest form" of a player-centered game.
"It has nothing to do with the coaches," he said. "It's everything about players when you walk across that big line. You had two staffs that were basically lame-duck staffs. 'Guys, it's just you versus those 11. You don't have to worry about some guy yelling at you on the sideline.' There's no anxiety of that. It's just you guys playing."
For the ones who were playing for one final time, it was the end they desired considering the circumstances.
"We're not getting done it right now, but it's not about the coaches and who they bring in," Lathers said. "It's about the players rallying around, learning the system and going out and playing for each other. We've got a great group of guys here that are going to move forward.
"I'm anxious to see what they're going to do next year."
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 ...