Commentary by Mark Wiedmer
KNOXVILLE - You half-expected Nick Reveiz to fight back tears. You would have 100 percent understood if he had.
"This is my last first game of the season as a Volunteer," Tennessee's starting senior middle linebacker during the Volunteers' first weekly media day of the season. "This is a good day."
A lot of us would say Reveiz has endured far more bad days than good ones during his Big Orange career. A broken leg at the start of his career. A shredded right knee last season. A lot of tortured time proving he deserved to be elevated from walk-on to scholarhip for more reasons than because his father Fuad was an outstanding UT kicker in the early 1980s.
Yet with his fifth and final Big Orange season set to begin Saturday night against UT-Martin, Reveiz's only vague hint of bitterness toward those who dismissed or doubted him is strictly motivational.
"I was watching (Florida basketball coach) Billy Donovan on ESPN a couple of years ago," Reveiz said. "He said, 'If you don't think you have something to prove, you'll never improve.' We haven't arrived around here. We're not that good yet."
How good this team ultimately can be likely will rest far more with the offense than the defense Reveiz leads emotionally. With five new starters along the offensive line - including two freshmen - and an unproven quarterback in Matt Simms, the best these Vols would appear capable of producing is a 6-6 regular season followed by a Music City or Liberty Bowl bid.
But Reveiz doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"It's hard to ask a team that's been so hurt and frustrated to buy into another new system," he said when asked about the impact of Derek Dooley being the Vols' third head coach in as many seasons.
"But I don't think there's really any guys on the fence (concerning Dooley) anymore. He's really been there for us, especially with the off-the-field stuff. And he's a leader. When we were taking the team picture on media day, it wasn't the cameraman directing us, it was Coach Dooley. He was like, 'All right, this guy over here, this guy over there.'
"I've always been a big believer that the small things add up and they count. That's why I believe that the way Coach Dooley does it is the correct way. That's what you want in a head coach."
He won't say what he doesn't want in a head coach, though you get the feeling Reveiz admired Phillip Fulmer and reviled Lane Kiffin.
What Reveiz will say is, "It's made me a much better person."
It might be hard to make Reveiz a much better person.
As junior running back Tauren Poole said, "Nick's such an incredible leader. Even when he's trying to kick your tail out there, he's always encouraging you. He always puts the team first. He even has influence over the coaches because he probably watches more film than anyone else on the team."
Dooley tried to downplay that side of Reveiz on Monday.
"If he makes a bunch of tackles, he'll have a big impact," the coach said, then broke into a grin.
Then the smile faded and Dooley added, "Any senior or veteran is important. You want a presence of calm and productivity. You want someone who'll be OK when things go wrong, because something's always going to go wrong."
He soon added, "The first game always brings a lot of anxiety."
And as Dooley spoke, you thought back 15 minutes to when Reveiz had the podium, to when he said, "I have so many more worries because I've seen so much, and because this is my last season here."
But Reveiz also said, "I'd rather do this with a smaller group of guys doing it the right way - both on and off the field - than a larger group doing it the wrong way."
Because the small things do add up. They count. Which is why Dooley is the right coach for the Big Orange and why he's lucky Reveiz is still around for a fifth season to show the rest the right way to win both on the field and off it.