KNOXVILLE -- The conversation eventually got around to the campus rock during Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley's weekly newss conference Monday.
In case you missed it, that would be the giant rock on which an angry UT student or two presumably painted the words "Fire Fooley" in the wee hours of Sunday morning following the Volunteers' 41-31 loss at undefeated Mississippi State.
Dooley didn't bring it up. The third-year coach was quite correctly far far more consumed with that other elephant in the room, those top-ranked red elephants from Alabama that will storm into Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
Or as Dooley noted: "We all know about Alabama. They have been the standard of college football for the last four years."
But because the graffiti on that giant rock also referenced the coach's 14-17 record since he was hired in January of 2010, and the fact that he's now 0-13 against ranked programs, Dooley briefly addressed that portion of the Big Orange Nation fan base that is less than thrilled with him at the moment.
"We have an incredibly passionate fan base," he said. "Look, you can't have it both ways. You can't have 102,000 people at the Vol Walk and not have an expectation of performance and results."
On the money.
The retired Voice of the Vols, John Ward, never made a better call than that.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart may or may not give Dooley a fourth season to try to return the Big Orange to the 1990s glory days, when the Vols not only won a national championship but also began a streak of seven straight victories against Bama from 1995 through 2001.
That's Hart's call. That's his job. And regardless of what decision he makes, the wisdom or foolishness of that decision won't immediately be known. Nick Saban was 7-6 his first year at Bama. He's lost a total of six games over four-plus seasons since.
Conversely, Houston Nutt was 9-4 each of his first two years at Ole Miss. His last two seasons: a combined 6-18 before he was canned last year.
Yet whatever happens Saturday, Dooley sees strong similarities between this Bama run and those 1990s Big Orange machines.
"They draft; we recruit," he said. "And they get the first 25 picks in the draft. They change jersey numbers, but the guys all look the same."
Thankfully, whatever the turmoil and uncertainty appearing to surround their coach, the Vols are looking at Saturday the same way Big Orange and Crimson Tide squads have looked at the Third Saturday in October for 95 years.
"It meant everything," UT junior defensive lineman Daniel Hood said as he recalled the importance of this game when he was growing up. "[Peyton] Manning directing the band when we beat Bama. Talking to Condredge [Holloway], who I don't think ever beat Bama. They said that any time they have a letterman's meeting, they always start out with 'Stand up if you beat Alabama.'"
Ben Bartholomew's brother Will never lost to Alabama when he played for the Vols from 1998 to 2001.
"I'll never forget being in the stands, watching those games," the Nashville native said. "Whenever Bama and Tennessee play, it's personal. It's not just another game. There's not a better opportunity for a win you'll remember the rest of your life than this one. This is why you come to Tennessee to play football."
Then there's Vols running back Devrin Young, who said of the Tide: "I've been playing this game for a long time, since I was like 5 years old."
If UT is to avoid its five straight losses to Bama turning into six, it likely will need career nights from Bartholomew, Hood, Young and everybody else in Orange.
But rivalries like this are also why players from both the Vols and Tide commit to SEC football.
And why as unlikely as it seems, the Big Orange Nation might consider the outcome of this game 30 years ago, when the No. 2 Tide lost 35-28 to an unranked Vols squad inside Neyland to snap an 11-game losing skid against Bama.
"I think all of our guys are excited about seeing if we can go toe-to-toe with them," Dooley said.
If Saturday night becomes 1982 all over again, the next graffiti brushed onto UT's giant rock might read: Hire Dooley ... For Life.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org