KNOXVILLE -- The rain that fell nearly all Sunday in Knoxville seemed appropriate.
For the Tennessee football program, the weather was especially fitting for the first day of an offseason that began much earlier than anyone associated with the Volunteers would have liked. The loss Saturday at Kentucky ended UT's bowl hopes and signaled rock bottom for a program that lost once by 42 points and twice by 31. How the Vols, who lost seven SEC games for the first time in the program's long, rich history, respond from the disappointment of the program's first back-to-back losing seasons since 1910-11 starts with the players and coaches, though it goes beyond that.
"It's really disappointing," said Derek Dooley, who is 11-14 and 4-12 in the Southeastern Conference in his two seasons at UT. "It's something that shouldn't happen at Tennessee, and hopefully it's something that won't happen again for a long time."
That's going to take a full offseason of development in a number of areas, from physicality to handling adversity to finding leadership. Dooley spoke after Saturday's loss of starting a climb from the low point, and it starts with the core group of sophomores who will be juniors next season and the handful of freshmen that contributed in key roles. The first immediate steps in that process, though, likely won't fully begin today, at least for the players.
"We'll give them a week off, have a team meeting and start reshaping a new football team," Dooley said. "There's a lot that goes into it."
For the coaching staff, it does start with this week. The staff will hit the recruiting trail looking to close down a class than can help on the field next season and continue to build the foundation for its 2012 recruiting class, which has been a season-long focal point. The Vols are still building up their roster and their depth.
As for the current team, the early offseason goals are simple to identify.
"We've got to get better, bigger, faster, stronger," said freshman safety Brian Randolph, who made a team-high 12 tackles in the loss to the Wildcats. "We've just got to work hard, keep our heads up, don't let it affect us. We've got to go into the offseason with a mindset to work hard."
Some of the necessary improvements go deeper than physical abilities, though. Defensive lineman Malik Jackson, one of just four senior starters, said the Vols must grow up.
"Dooley's going to do big things," said the always honest Jackson. "He's been building this team really good, and I have no doubt they're going to come out here ready to play, especially after this season. I just feel like they need to grow up and sit back and see where the seniors were coming from and go out there and play for something bigger than themselves. Everything, off the field, practice, everybody coming out and practice harder.
"Not just say, 'Oh, I'm here,' but actually go out there and be happy they're there. At the end of the day, that's what we're here for. A lot of guys don't really understand that this is what we're here for. They come out there and think it's another day. It can be taken from you so fast. They just need to learn to grow up on and off the field and just as people."
Dooley will be the Vols' coach next season, and UT would owe him a $5 million buyout if it fired him before February 15, 2013, though the negativity surrounding the program that some of the players referenced during the four-game losing streak in October will be louder after Saturday's embarrassing loss culminated a bad season.
Sophomore Rajion Neal, who moved from tailback to receiver this season and caught four passes for 125 yards and UT's lone touchdown on Saturday, said after the Vols' 42-7 loss at Arkansas that "it could get real bad around here" if the Vols dropped either of the last two games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Now that it's happened that way, the Vols must deal with it.
"It's hard," Neal said Saturday. "It's definitely something that really hurts, because it's nothing that we wanted to do. We didn't want to send our seniors out in this fashion. It hurt a lot, [and] we feel like we let a bunch of guys down -- this team, and definitely the Vol Nation.
"You've got to stay around your family, your friends. You've got to stay around your coahces and definitely stay as positive as you can and kind of shy away and stay out of the way and not [in] the eye of everything."
Dooley said Saturday that going to a bowl might have made the Vols feel better about themselves and their season, almost as if he's hoping the loss will show his team how bad a loss feels and provide motivation for the future.
"I told them you don't always get what you want in life, and it's going to be a great lesson," he said. "If you don't want to feel this way again, we've got to go work and build a new football team, and that's all you can do."