KNOXVILLE - For nearly three decades, Steve Stripling coached defensive lines and linebackers at football programs across the Midwest.
Yet the desire for a move to warmer weather and a better brand of football always remained in the back of the Tennessee new defensive line coach's mind.
Though the desire now has become reality, Stripling doesn't believe much changes.
"Coaching in the big stadiums, coaching the great players, all those things -- I hopefully believe it's prepared me for this," he said earlier this month. "Coaching's coaching. It's a relationship with the kids, the productivity you can get out of them, the chemistry in the room, the belief in the room."
Executing the same plan or playing in the SEC, though, always seems to intrigue coaches, players and recruits. The league is the home of the past seven national champions, and seven SEC programs finished the 2012 season in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll as four others hired new coaches. It's also where the Volunteers are trying to battle their way up from near the bottom of the mountain.
It's new territory for new Tennessee coach Butch Jones and most of his first Vols staff, including Stripling. The 59-year-old former Colorado offensive lineman spent 12 seasons at Indiana before jumping around the Big Ten to Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan.
A two-year stint at Louisville was his only venture outside that league during the 23-year stretch for Stripling before 2007, when he met Jones while on Lloyd Carr's staff at Michigan.
With his two sons playing football at Alma College, a Division III school located less than 20 miles from Central Michigan's campus in Mount Pleasant, Stripling moved to Jones' staff with the Chippewas in 2009 and followed him to Cincinnati a year later.
After Jones twice took new jobs, Stripling stuck around his boss's previous programs to serve as the interim coach for bowl games.
"Butch is an attention-to-detail coach," Stripling said. "Coach Jones has his eye on everything, and I think my role is to help him do that. I think he has confidence in me that if he's out of the room or off the field I can step into that.
"The interim head coaching that I've done for him has put me in that position. We have a great relationship. We have great trust among each other."
Stripling is 2-0 in the unique role. Fresh off a Mid-American Conference championship, Central Michigan outlasted Troy in the GMAC Bowl in 2010. Nearly three years later, with Jones and four coaches already gone to the Vols, Stripling headed a five-man Cincinnati staff to a wild comeback win against Duke in the Belk Bowl.
For nearly three weeks in December, Stripling was a coach with two jobs as he served as the Bearcats' interim coach with his spot on Tennessee's staff already official.
"Both [Cincinnati and Tennessee] agreed to it because it's for these players, to give them a good experience," Stripling told the Cincinnati Enquirer in December. "This was the best way to make it as smooth as possible."
Creating a similar scenario for Tennessee's defensive line is Stripling's next challenge. The Vols have had a different defensive line coach every year since 2008. The fourth- and fifth-year players in the program have had a different one each year.
There's also the change from a 3-4 base defense back to the 4-3 to complicate the task, though the process of seeing what pieces fit where is in its earliest stages.
"I think playing D-line's playing D-line," Stripling said. There might be a little difference in technique. I'm probably a little more concerned just about the transition, that they've had different coaches for numerous years and getting some continuity and having the kids feel confident in what they're doing and how to express it."
Stripling didn't hesitate to express his past yearning to coach in the SEC -- it "definitely" was in the back of his mind, he said -- and now he has his chance.
"I think as a coach you look for new challenges," he said. "My wife and I called it a new adventure. This is great, and I'm looking forward to the challenge.
"We obviously saw the [national championship] game the other night, so we know the stakes are out there. I have looked forward to coming down and coaching here. I think the country all knows the dominant conference right now, so again it's exciting to come down and be involved in it.
"It's going to be a challenge, but we'll get to it."