Wiedmer: The UT brand still impressive for Vols new coaches

Wiedmer: The UT brand still impressive for Vols new coaches

February 9th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's head coach Derek Dooley watches his team as they play against Montana in this file photo.

Tennessee's head coach Derek Dooley watches his team...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - If you don't think coaches are eternal optimists, forever looking at glasses half-full, forever certain that tomorrow's national championship (or at least an SEC East crown) is only a few plays away, you haven't yet listened to the University of Tennessee's six new football assistants.

The rest of the Big Orange Nation may darkly assume that the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse will strike Neyland Stadium first after enduring three losing seasons in the last four years and a stunning defeat to Kentucky for the first time in 27 Novembers -- that loss made more shocking by the woeful Wildcats playing a string bean of a wide receiver who couldn't throw the ball at quarterback.

Just don't try selling that negative attitude to new defensive line coach John Palermo.

"Tennessee always has been and always will be the personification of a first-class university and first-class program run by first-class people," said Palermo, who worked at Middle Tennessee last season.

"When you can put 102,000 people in Neyland Stadium, it's obviously a special place."

Then there's new offensive line coach Sam Pittman, late of North Carolina: "It's Tennessee. That's pretty self-explanatory. If you're not in the SEC, you want to be in the SEC. Most of my coaching has been in the Big 12, and I wanted to see what it was like. I heard a lot of nice things about Coach [Derek] Dooley, and I have a high respect for Jim Chaney. I wanted to work with Jim as well."

They aren't the only ones of Dooley's Half-Dozen already drinking the orange Kool-Aid, however.

Charlie Coiner coached against Dooley in the 2010 Music City Bowl as a member of the North Carolina Tar Heels staff with Pittman. He retired after that season to start 1st Down Technologies in Austin, Tex., which makes coaching apps.

But the chance to come to Tennessee quickly convinced him to trade in his company for a clipboard.

"This is the University of Tennessee," said Coiner, who's spent half as much time in the NFL (nine seasons) as college football (18 years). "You know it's better than 5-7. When you start looking at the last couple of years, they're just a play here and a play there from changing the outcome of a couple of games. You have great players, great coaches, a lot of things in place. It was an easy decision to come here."

The easiest decision, of course, was probably former UT tailback Jay Graham leaving South Carolina to coach the Vols' running backs.

"I had to think of my wife [Kelly], I wanted to make sure she was OK with this," said Graham, whose first paid position was at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga under Rodney Allison in 2006. "We have four children, and she does so much for me. "But she's always understood that this is the place I want to be. Having a chance to go back to your alma mater is something special."

A chance to coach in Neyland Stadium more than once every few years wasn't the only reason that made it special to the 59-year-old Palermo. After numerous stops over a 37-year career, he and his wife bought a house a few years ago on Dale Hollow Lake, roughly an hour and 45 minutes from Knoxville.

"When you're a coach, you're always moving around," he said. "My wife and I wanted a place to call home, a place our children could visit. When Tennessee called, it like the big guy in the sky was looking out for me."

New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri was forced to choose between son Vinnie and his lifelong dream to become a coordinator when he left Vinnie to fend for himself as an Alabama sophomore linebacker while pops took over the Vols D.

"That was certainly the hardest part," he said. "But both Vinnie and I have our own identities. He's got a national championship ring at Bama, and I've finally realized my goal to be a coordinator at a major college. And to be at Tennessee, where they've won a few national championships themselves, this is special."

How quickly Dooley's Half-Dozen can return the Vols to special won't be known for at least seven months.

But offensive coordinator Jim Chaney -- who's worn UT orange for a year longer than Dooley -- said much on Wednesday when he said of the new hires, "They bring fresh ideas, which is probably what we need right now."

Merely admitting that is a hugely positive step forward.