All it took was his first visit to Thompson-Boling Arena.
New University of Tennessee football coach Derrick Dooley said he knew he made the right decision coming to the UT when he attended his first basketball game at the school.
“What sold me was the first basketball game. To see 22,000 fans there and the basketball team responded,” he said.
Dooley and UT head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl were on hand Thursday morning when the Big Orange Caravan stopped in Maryville at the Capitol Theatre. Fans packed the venue and enjoyed a buffet breakfast catered by Sullivan’s Downtown.
Coach Dooley gave the fans a little background on his life, how he earned a law degree and actually practiced for 18 months before choosing to pursue coaching. “People ask me why I left law. I think the question is why I went to law school in the first place after growing up in such a football family. I missed the important part of football, watching young people grow and just being able to affect their life in a positive manner,” he said. “This is a great profession.”
Dooley said he can’t deny the challenges the football program has had with three coaches on campus in the past two years. “We’re heading into next year with issues,” he said. “The most important thing is getting a foundation established.”
Dooley, son of legendary University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley, said his father has become a student of Tennessee history, including Tennessee football history. Saying his father is “intense” when he has a new passion, he says his father will now call him with some information he wants to share.
“He will call and ask me if I know who -- oh, Jimmy Jones or somebody is. And I’ll say ‘No,’ and he’ll say, “Well, he was a back in the 1900s. This is important, you need to know this,’ and I’ll say, ‘Dad, I don’t even know who my defensive end is,” Dooley said as the crowd laughed.
The coach after coming on board and hiring his staff, he spent more time working with the players rather than being in the public’s eye. “I made the decision after signing day that we needed to bunker down and get our arms around this team,” he said, “so that our team and coaches understand our expectations.”
Dooley said the team has plenty of spots to fill. “We’ve got five new offensive linemen and a new quarterback. Other than that, we’re great,” he said, drawing laughter.
The coach said the team does have talented freshmen coming in and he’s impressed with them. “They’re young and inexperienced, but I feel good about them,” he said.
“Voice of the Vols” game day announcer Bob Kesling said response has been strong from fans at each caravan stop. “People want to feel part of the program,” he said.
Kesling served as master of ceremonies and introduced Pearl who shared his thoughts on the upset win over University of Kansas. “Kansas came in No. 1. CBS was in the house, and they went home No. 2,” Pearl said.
Pearl shared his thoughts on having to suspend four of his players in January after they were arrested by Knoxville police. He said the team responded well, and in the days following the arrests, back up players came off the bench and won. “Four good kids made mistakes. The guys still on the roster were ready,” Pearl said.
The coach said those back-up players are good examples because when they didn’t make first team, they continued preparing to play. “In life, we don’t always get the opportunities when we want them,” he said. “Josh Bone, Skylar McBee and Steven Pearl, when opportunity called, they stepped up.”
Pearl said much is required of student athletes. “As I have worked my way up to this level, I have gained unbelievable respect for student athletes,” he said.
Pearl also talked about the graduation rate for student athletes. “When we don’t graduate one, it stays with you, just like the loss in the Elite Eight stays with you.”
Pearl said participating in the Big Orange Caravan is important to him because he wants to connect with fans of the school’s athletic programs.
“The biggest thing is we’re always asking folks to please come to Thompson-Boling Arena, please come to Neyland Stadium. When you go out to them in their communities and home towns, they appreciate that,” he said. “Fans make the difference between us being good and being great.”
Dan Brown, president of the University of Tennessee Alumni Association, said support for UT athletics is strong in Blount County. “We have over 6,500 UT alumni in Blount County and 1,100 Blount County students attend the University of Tennessee,” said Brown, who lives in Middle Tennessee but also has a home in Townsend.
Brown said fans have been gracious to the new football coach. “He has been received tremendously well across the state. It just keeps getting better and better. He is doing a great job, and Bruce and Pat have also been tremendous ambassadors for the university and for higher education,” Brown said.
Angela Mills, director of Alumni Programs, is used to the reaction from fans when the University of Tennessee Big Orange Caravan stops in a community.
“People are excited about the coaches. They get here, and they were amazed. People could not believe Coach Pearl is greeting them at the door,” she said as fans came through the front door at the theater.
Mills spearheaded the Big Orange Caravan, and this is her fourth stop. She said planning for the caravan starts in August and runs through October. “We get our chapters on board, and we try to reward the chapters by giving them a caravan stop,” she said.
Mills said the UT caravans are unique because local chapter members participate in the planning. Other schools athletic departments often run the caravans and local chapters aren’t as involved, she said. For trips across state, the coaches will get on an RV from Chilhowee RVs and ride from place to place.
Leroy Rogers of Maryville wore a pair of orange Nike high-top shoes to the breakfast and told Coach Dooley the story behind them. Nike put the shoes on the players after UT beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl. The new orange Nike cleats were worn for that Alabama-Tennessee game.
“They beat us 56-28, and Coach Johnny Major said, ‘Get rid of those shoes,’” Rogers said.
Rogers said he knew Ralph Chancey, who was an assistant in Majors’ office, and Chancey got Rogers the shoes fullback Jim Miller wore for the game, and he has kept them all these years.
Rogers said Coach Dooley enjoyed hearing about the shoes. “Dooley ate it up that I would hang on to something like that and that it meant so much,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he was impressed with the new coach. “He was so open, and he was charismatic,” Rogers said. “He may not sign your five-star prospects. He will look at character first. He will expect a player to stay in school and stay off ESPN. We have worn ESPN out.”
Joe Tipton of Twin Cities Dealerships was on hand and shared his thoughts on the crowd’s enthusiasm. “People are obviously passionate about Tennessee athletics. I have been all my life,” Tipton said. “I guess I’ll die that way.”
Keith Manor of Knoxville said he’s been a fan of UT athletics for 33 years since his family moved to Tennessee. “I’m really looking forward to meeting coach Dooley,” he said while standing in a long line that stretched up one side of the theater. On the other side another line formed as Coach Pearl signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans.
Grady Thompson praised Pearl for being accessible to fans. “He’s personable and cares about the fans,” he said. “That’s why they show up for the games.”
Greg Wilson said he appreciates the coaching staff coming out into the community. “We have a lot of Vol fans and support here. When you can get coaches to autograph something or give one-on-one time, it is special,” he said.
Will Carver of Maryville wore a pair of one-of-a-kind orange boots he inherited from his grandfather, Joe Sevier.
“My grandfather was mayor of Waynesboro, Tenn., and they gave these boots to him when he retired,” Carver said.
Nancy Underwood said she was excited about the new year and the new football coach. She also praised Pearl for his work with the basketball team. “We love Bruce Pearl,” she said. “He’s done a lot for the basketball team.”
Sue Fleenor of Maryville shared the praise for how Pearl has reinvigorated the basketball team. “I’m sure the new football coach will do the same for the football program,” she said.
John Cherry of Maryville said he graduated UT in 1984 and events like the caravan are important because fans get up close. “Where that makes a difference is in the money people put into tickets,” he said. “They want to see where their money is going.”
Steven Daves of Maryville said the caravan is a great opportunity to talk with the coaches in a relaxed atmosphere. “I pulled in this morning, and Coach Pearl pulled in about the same time, so I walked in with him,” Daves said. “He was just so personable.”