KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee's football team returned to Knoxville at 3 Sunday morning following an embarrassing 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville, most of the players probably knew what was coming later that morning.
The Volunteers dropped to 4-7, stayed winless in the SEC and failed to reach a bowl game for the second consecutive season.
Just eight hours after returning, the players attended a meeting where they were told Derek Dooley was out as their coach.
"It wasn't a big surprise," junior linebacker and former Ooltewah High School star Jacques Smith said after this morning's practice. "When you lose to Vandy, I guess that's the repercussion of it. It was definitely a lot of mixed emotions.
"Dooley's a great guy. He's put this program to where we need to be to be in a path for success. It just didn't happen this year.
"I believe if he had another year, he could have made it happen, but that's just my opinion."
Tennessee still must prepare for Saturday's visit from Kentucky with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney serving as the interim coach. The fourth-year Tennessee assistant acknowledged his team was "shell-shocked" by the program's third coaching change since the 2008 season, but he said adversity is part of college football. His message to the Vols was simple.
"Go out here and play football, the game you loved when you were 12," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said of Chaney's address. "Don't worry about all the distractions. It's over now, we can't do anything about it."
For the players who were around when former coach Lane Kiffin bolted in mid-January nearly four years ago, Sunday's meeting was much different. Once they got the call for the late-morning meeting, they knew what was about to happen. The Vols have been managing outside distractions and answering questions about Dooley's job security and the program's future since mid-October.
That didn't make Sunday's meeting any easier to handle, especially for the fired coach.
"You could see the emotion in his face," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "He did a good job holding stuff together, but you could see the emotion on his face and you could see the emotion in other people's faces, too. Coaches, players - it was an emotional moment, but Coach Chaney, he's taken over now and he's done a a really good job of telling us that, 'Guys, adversity is going to hit you, and you've just got to move on.'
"We've got Kentucky this week, and that's what we're focusing on right now."
Tennessee's mantra this week is playing for the seniors, eight of whom were true freshmen when Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008.
Four years later, the Vols are looking for their fourth coach in six years.
"I've been through this before, and it's just part of the business," Smith said. "This is college football, and this is the ugly side of it. Tennessee has seen that side too many times."
More reaction from players and interim coach Jim Chaney will appear Tuesday in the Times Free Press.