KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Don’t bother looking for another three-year stretch in Tennessee’s proud football history where the Vols have lost 20 games.
There isn’t one.
In fact, the only thing that comes close is the end of the Bill Battle era and beginning of the John Majors era from 1976-78.
And while those were lean times in Big Orange Country, they don’t compare to the Vols’ most recent plunge into football wasteland.
They’re 18-20 over the past three seasons. They’re coming off their third losing season in the past six years. They’ve had three head coaches in the past three years and have a date with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in June.
That last one was Lane Kiffin’s going-away present before bolting for the West Coast.
The guy brought in to clean up the mess, Derek Dooley, would like to leave behind his own present, one that endures.
He’d like to give the program its soul back, because in a lot of ways, Tennessee has been a program the past several years that lost its way.
“The situation that I walked into last year … I don’t think there’s any head coach that’s ever walked into something like that at this kind of place, where the resources are what they are and the expectations are what they are and you had three head coaches in three years,” said Dooley, whose Vols concluded spring practice last Saturday with the annual Orange & White spring game.
It was the first time since 2008 that the same head coach had guided the Vols through spring practice for the second year in a row.
Dooley has worked diligently to upgrade the talent in this program, and following back-to-back signing classes ranked among the top 15 nationally, he feels like he’s done that.
With much of the roster gutted when he arrived, though, he’s quick to point out that 70 percent of the Vols’ players will be freshmen and sophomores next season.
Of course, where he’s spent much of his time the past year or so is changing what he called a disruptive culture at a program that had been the essence of stability for more than 30 years under Majors and then Phillip Fulmer.
But when it turns for the worst in this league, it does so quickly and usually harshly.
“The fan base was so on edge,” said Dooley, who was able to steer the Vols to a bowl game last season despite a 2-6 start. “The two coaches who were here before me [Fulmer and Kiffin] … their personalities were so different and then you had the attrition on the team. The team was decimated from a roster standpoint. It was a challenge, and I was proud of what we accomplished down the stretch there. But we also know that’s not the standard for Tennessee football.”
That standard soared to dizzying heights in the 1990s under Fulmer when the Vols went 45-5 from 1995-98 with two SEC championships and a national championship. They’re still the last school to repeat as SEC champions in 1997 and 1998.
“When we go into the complex to work out and look at all those SEC championship banners and the national championship banner hanging up there, we don’t need to be reminded,” said All-SEC defensive back Prentiss Waggner, who signed under Fulmer and is now on his third head coach. “We’re just looking forward to getting Tennessee on the right track and are going to work as hard as we can to get there.”
Dooley, who was raised on SEC football, has gone to great lengths to educate the players in what it means to play for Tennessee.
“I do think we lost that somewhere along the way,” Dooley said. “We lost sight of what the standards are here.”
And while this is a different SEC, a much tougher SEC with greater parity than it was when the Vols repeated as league champions in 1997 and 1998, those standards don’t change.
Neither do the expectations of the Tennessee fans, who are well aware that it’s been more than a decade since the Vols last played in a BCS bowl game.
“When you go through that kind of turmoil we have for the last few years, your players begin to go through a self-preservation mode,” Dooley said. “When there are failures, they retreat in a protectionism way, to protect each other, instead of working together for a common purpose. Our team was not working to go compete for an SEC championship, and that’s the way we have to start thinking.”
From a talent standpoint, Dooley feels like the Vols are much closer to getting back into that race.
Still, he worries about the lack of experience, and he worries about depth, particularly on defense.
Despite a poor spring game by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, the pieces would seem to be in place on offense. The offensive line, with three true freshman starters returning from a year ago, has a chance to be special, and everybody in the league is looking for two athletes on the perimeter who can go get the football the way sophomore receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers can.
But on defense, the Vols will have to lean heavily on new faces in 2011. In fact, a trio of junior college newcomers -- tackle Maurice Couch and defensive backs Bryon Moore and Izauea Lanier -- may be starters the day they walk onto campus this June.
The Vols will also need some help at linebacker among the three freshmen they signed in this class, and they’re keeping their fingers crossed that junior safety Janzen Jackson will get his personal issues straightened out and rejoin the team next fall.
It may be that Tennessee has to win a lot of shootouts next season, and that’s never a good way to roll in the SEC.
Dooley, who certainly hasn’t lost his wit, cracks, “My fear is that we can’t stop anybody and that we can’t score. That’s the ultimate fear.”
But he agrees that defense is where it begins and ends in this league.
“The fact of the matter is that if you can’t play good defense game in and game out, you’re not going to compete for a championship unless you just absolutely have a ridiculous offense,” Dooley said. “You don’t build programs or teams on exceptions. The rule is you better have stout defenses.”
And make no mistake. Dooley’s committed to building back Tennessee’s program the right way … and his way.
“Last year, not everybody was buying in,” senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “But this year, everybody is buying in and knows that it’s Coach Dooley’s show. You can’t fight that.
“He’s grown on us, and we’re trying to do what he says and take it a day at a time.”