Wiedmer: Departing Hood believes in Vols' future

Wiedmer: Departing Hood believes in Vols' future

December 1st, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee defensive lineman Daniel Hood (97) watches from the sidelines during the second half against Alabama.

Tennessee defensive lineman Daniel Hood (97) watches from...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It hit Daniel Hood from nowhere. Like a chop block or a clip.

With the burly defensive lineman's Tennessee playing career officially over following the Volunteers' 27-14 victory over Kentucky on Saturday night, he felt his eyes fill with tears as he walked off UK's Commonwealth Stadium turf.

"I've never been an emotional guy," he said later after wiping away a second round of the salty stuff while meeting with the media.

"I didn't know I'd get choked up, but I did. It's just hard to believe I'll never wear this uniform again."

Every journey starts and ends somewhere. And not always where you plan.

When Hood arrived on campus for the 2009 season under new coach Lane Kiffin after an all-state career at Knoxville Catholic, he almost certainly expected big things -- the kind of things he'd watched the Vols achieve in his youth, everything from SEC East titles to Jan. 1 bowl wins to a 1998 national championship.

Instead, none of those transpired for Hood or his fellow seniors. They lost the only two bowl games they participated in, wound up going 5-7 with no bowl bids each of their final three years and wound up (at least in Hood's and his fellow fifth-year seniors' cases) playing for three different head coaches.

Or as first-year coach Butch Jones noted late Saturday, "Someone told me that counting strength and conditioning coaches, they played for 42 coaches over five years."

Given such adversity, it would be easy to assume that Hood's tears were happy in nature, as in, "Wow, I'm finally done with this nightmare."

But Jones never let it come to that. He embraced this senior class from the moment he was hired on Pearl Harbor Day of 2012. He told the senior Vols this would be their team, Team 117. And he embraced them at every turn, never missing a chance to praise their leadership, their work ethic, their discipline, their desire.

And when Saturday ended, with win No. 5 wrapped up for this flawed yet feisty team, Jones sought out as many of those seniors as he could.

"I just wanted to take a second or two with each one before we got to the locker room," the coach said. "Just to thank them for all they've done."

Said Hood, recalling that brief embrace: "He just said, 'Thank you for your commitment and for setting the foundation.'"

Just exactly what that foundation is may not be known by this time next year. The 2014 schedule includes road trips to Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Alabama and Missouri both come to Neyland Stadium, as does UT-Chattanooga, which figures to be a top-10 FCS program with a veteran option quarterback, which has caused the Vols problems for several years.

A longtime member of UT's traveling party said Saturday of the year ahead, "I don't think next year will be any better than this one; it might even be worse. I think it will be year three before things start to improve."

But there is improvement you can see in a won-lost record and improvement that's measured in other areas, though no less important overall.

Hood spoke of Jones' brilliance in those areas, particularly academics.

"Because of the APR numbers when he arrived, we were in danger of missing a bowl game next year," Hood said. "But he showed us how important it was not to let that happen, and what a big role the seniors could play in that. And because of that we just posted the best APR score since I've been here."

This isn't to insinuate that Jones doesn't care about winning.

He was quite adamant after the UK win that "it's expected that we go to bowl games from here on out."

He spoke more than once of the importance of going "One-Oh" in the Vols' final game. Of how such a finish will help with offseason conditioning and recruiting. Of how, in his words, "This gives us momentum to go out and secure a big-time recruiting class."

And no matter what happened down the stretch -- the blowout losses to Alabama, Missouri and Auburn, the early rout at Oregon -- this team did win its last game and nearly won its last two.

Heck, to listen to Jones, to recall the closeness of that overtime loss to Georgia and 14-10 shocker against Vanderbilt, was to believe the Vols really could have finished 7-5 instead of 5-7.

"We're two instant replays away from a seven-win season," he said, recalling the replays (though correct) that left them losers in the UGA and Vandy games.

Instead, they just suffered through their third straight losing season.

But Hood was focusing on none of that late Saturday. He was already looking ahead, to what will be constructed on the foundation laid by Team 117.

Said Hood, a smile forming below his tear-filled eyes: "The sky's the limit."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com