Wiedmer: UT coaches glad to see patient fans on caravan

Wiedmer: UT coaches glad to see patient fans on caravan

May 12th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney isn't often asked to attend Big Orange Caravan stops.

In fact, UT head football coach Derek Dooley has a rule against Chaney speaking to the media at such events.

But there he was at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday evening, staring down television cameras and glibly answering reporters' questions.

So what has impressed Chaney most during his first two football seasons in Knoxville, working first for Lane Kiffin, then Dooley?

"Loyalty," he said as swiftly as Justin Hunter can run a crossing route. "They're here for you in good times and bad. They haven't been nearly as volatile as I thought they could be. They've shown great patience, which tells me there's a certain amount of intellect in our alums."

Many believe that patience will again be tested this coming school year in both football and men's basketball, where Dooley's Vols must overcome major graduation losses at receiver, defensive line and linebacker if they're to improve on last season's 6-7 record following the Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina.

Then there's the hoop Vols, who must not only replace a handful of seniors and two potential NBA first-round draft picks in Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, but must also deal with probable NCAA sanctions due to the bad behavior of former coach Bruce Pearl.

Even Dooley seemed anxious to lower expectations when he said of rebuilding the Vols, "I still know it takes several years ... You want to get to where you can fine-tune the system the third year."

Yet not every UT program is looking to rebuild. Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt pointed to last season's undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference, an outstanding recruiting class and a hunger to erase last season's bitter Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame and said, "I'll be disappointed if we don't have one of our better teams."

If they do, it may be because Summitt has always made sure the young people she recruits are as solid off the court as on it, and they've been solid enough on it to win her a record eight NCAA titles.

"Books before basketball," she said during her turn with the media on Wednesday. "Academics must always come first."

To practice what she preaches, she was the last UT coach to reach the Convention Center because Tamika Catchings - one of her all-time great Lady Vols - was the commencement speaker at UT's School of Education, Health and Human Sciences graduation ceremony.

"There was no way I could miss that," said Summitt. "To know all she's been through, dealing with a hearing impairment and all, I was just so proud of her."

The crowd is almost always proud of its coaches at these events. Fifteen-year-old Michael Lewis wore a "Get On Board the Big Orange Dooley" T-shirt and talked of "Hoping to get a few autographs."

Carolyn Cofer estimates she's been a fan for at least 30 years. She said she came, "To hear from as many coaches as I can."

Asked what she wanted to hear, she replied, "Get some pep into people. I think some of us have become disheartened over what's happened the last couple of years. It's been hard for fans. I want to hear something positive."

All sports fans know that the summer is always the most positive time of the year for college sports fanatics. Everybody's undefeated in everything in July.

And given the Big Orange Nation's usual sense of optimism this time of year, someone asked Dooley what's been the most outrageous item he's been asked to autograph during his Caravan stops.

"A Harley-Davidson [motorcycle]," answered the coach. "And I wanted to ride off on it. But the fans have been great. There haven't been any unreasonable signing requests."

Must be that Big Orange intellect.