Wiedmer: UT Vols Big Orange brass filled with hope

Wiedmer: UT Vols Big Orange brass filled with hope

May 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Maren Gwaltney, left, gets a hug from University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick during the UT Caravan on Wednesday. Warlick was a guest on the caravan along with UT athletic director Dave Hart, football coach Derek Dooley and men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Maybe it was merely the fact that this was the final Big Orange Caravan stop of the year. Or that a paid vacation to Destin, Fla., was just around the corner at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings.

Or maybe, just maybe, University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley's easy smile and confident demeanor were signs that the worst really is behind the program as he heads into his third season.

"All the anchors that have been weighing our program down the last three or four years are gone," said Dooley at the Chattanooga Convention Center early Wednesday evening.

"This is as good a place as we've been from a chemistry standpoint."

We want instant when it comes to a new coach. Never mind that Dooley was the Vols' third coach in three autumns when he ran onto Neyland Stadium's lush field for the opening game of the 2010 season.

Never mind, too, that the ouster of national championship-winning coach Phillip Fulmer after the 2008 season and the unexpected exit of his replacement, Lane Kiffin, a year later left the Vols' chemistry in tatters.

You just can't post two of UT's three losing seasons in the last four seasons - the other belonging to Fulmer - and expect the fans to feel good about the place your football program's in.

Or as as fan Andrew Weeks said while waiting for the Caravan to arrive: "I want them to win some SEC games this season. I really want them to beat Kentucky."

Not that Dooley was the only UT coach on the caravan looking to get back to beating the Big Blue in 2012 after decades of owning them. Though the Lady Vols split with the Lady Kats last season, they lost the SEC regular-season title to them in Pat Summitt's final season.

So what did Holly Warlick do this past month? She hired former Lady Vols star Kyra Elzy away from the UK staff, a move almost certain to weaken Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell's recruiting, at least for the moment.

"I didn't know if she'd accept, she had a good deal at Kentucky," said Warlick. "But I knew I had to ask because I really believe Kyra could make us better."

The ultimate job of making the UT athletic program better falls to Dave Hart, now eight months on the job. The father of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga AD Rick Hart, he is still reorganizing much of the department, especially behind-the-scenes positions.

"I haven't denied that we've got a hill to climb," the elder Hart said. "But one thing we have at the University of Tennessee is a history and tradition that any school would be proud to have."

And not all those traditions are all that old. As Dooley arrived at the Convention Center he was greeted by Cleveland, Tenn., resident Neyland Raper, a senior at Walker Valley High School who was wearing orange pants eerily similar to those Dooley often wears on the sideline.

"Great pants," said a grinning Dooley.

Said Neyland - whose brother is named Peyton - "I wear these to school almost every day."

Dooley's Vols kick it off against North Carolina State 99 nights from tonight inside the Georgia Dome. Seven weeks after that the basketball Vols and Lady Vols will begin practicing for another march to March.

Said Hart, his voice upbeat and his eyes bright, "I'm excited about our future."