KNOXVILLE - Even Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before Tennessee's famed "Last Tackle" drill was to begin, assistant equipment manager Max Parrott wasn't sure it would take place.
"I'm assuming we're going to do it," the 1980 Soddy-Daisy High School graduate said. "We have every year since Coach [John] Majors first started it when he got here. We told both Coach [Lane] Kiffin and Coach [Derek] Dooley about it when they became coach, and they thought it was great, a really neat tradition. But we don't know anything for certain right now."
You could argue that at no time in the 117 autumns it has officially fielded a football team has UT faced a more uncertain or uncomfortable time than right now.
The just-fired Dooley decided Sunday that he wouldn't coach the Kentucky game, presumably because he didn't want to be a distraction to his 4-7 squad as it attempts to avoid a bagel in SEC play (currently 0-7).
That left athletic director Dave Hart to appoint offensive coordinator Jim Chaney as interim coach. While Chaney has been on board long enough to appreciate the Last Tackle, he's obviously had other things on his mind this week.
But there is no denying the drill's neat tradition.
"Basically, the whole team forms a gauntlet," explained the 50-year-old Parrott, who's worked with UT head equipment manager Roger Frazier since 1985.
"The head coach is on one end with the seniors on the other. The coach says a few words about each senior, about what they've meant to the school; then the player runs through the gauntlet, tackles the tackling dummy one last time and heads to the locker room. It's pretty special."
The dummy usually is dressed in the uniform of the team the Vols are about to play. In recent years it has been Kentucky. Until 2001 it was Vanderbilt. In 2001 the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made Florida the final opponent.
"The dummy wore a Gators helmet, blue jersey and orange pants that year," Parrott said.
But whatever it wears, this year's seniors are more than ready to tackle it.
"Sometimes it's the last memory you have of guys before they leave," said fullback Ben Bartholomew. "I'd be pretty upset if we didn't do it, but I think we will. These coaches all know the tradition."
Added linebacker Herman Lathers, one of 13 total scholarship and walk-on seniors expected to participate in the drill today: "It means a lot to run out there and hit that tackling dummy for the last time, to have your teammates clap for you as you run through the gauntlet. It lets you know that they realize you gave your all for Tennessee while you were here."
Few men have given more of their emotional all to the Vols than Parrott, who first attended a UT game with his parents in 1969 when the Big Orange opened against Chattanooga.
"My parents had had season tickets for years in Section A," he recalled. "But my cousin, Betsy Minnis, was dating Tim Priest -- they're married now -- and she got me tickets in the horseshoe. I was hooked."
After wrestling for Soddy-Daisy, Parrott enrolled at UT in 1980, immediately becoming a student trainer. A year after he graduated and while he was working in the blood lab at the UT hospital, Frazier called and asked Parrott if he'd like to become his assistant.
"I gave the hospital a five-minute notice," he said with a chuckle.
As he reflected on his 30-plus years of Last Tackle moments, Parrott said two stand out.
"Willie Gault hurdled it, just jumped over the whole dummy," he said. "And Bill Duff pulled out a hunting knife and stabbed it."
Asked to recall Peyton Manning's last tackle, he said, "I think Peyton tackled it and headed to the locker room. Nothing more."
Parrott preferred to say nothing more about UT's current coaching situation. Best to leave that to Hart, he said.
But he did briefly discuss why he believes this senior class deserves a warm, enthusiastic send-off from a big crowd Saturday.
"Just look at what they've been through," Parrott said. "Herman Lathers was recruited by Coach Fulmer. They've all played for at least two coaches, and now their final game will be with a third.
"Just the way they've stuck it out, because they love the university and love wearing the orange jersey through the toughest four or five years we've had around here regarding football. There aren't a lot of players out there today who would have done what they've done."
As the Big Orange Nation decides whether or not to bundle up and head to Neyland for Saturday's 2012 finale, let its collective heart and head tackle that.