Returning Tennessee to its former glory has not been easy.
Since the Vols won the national title in 1998, they have won 10 or more games just four times, had six losing seasons, including four straight, and are on their third coach since Philip Fulmer was forced out in 2008.
And while many of the former players think Tennessee is on its way back behind second-year coach Butch Jones, it’s hard for them to let go out the years since Fulmer's departure.
"I really don't even want to say the names of the two guys who were there between Coach Fulmer and Coach Jones,” former linebacker Al Wilson told the Times Free Press. Wilson was one of several former Tennessee players working a youth football camp this past weekend and asked about his thoughts on the state of the program.
“They don't deserve to have their names mentioned with Tennessee football. As somebody who went 45-5 while I was at UT, that's a place I care a lot about and I'm just glad that there's somebody in charge again who gets it and who wants to be there and take the program back to where it was and where it should be.”
Wilson wasn’t the only one who had unkind words for Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, two coaches who bridged the gap — poorly — between Fulmer and the current regime. Kiffin spent just one year with the Vols, got the team in hot water with the NCAA and then bolted for USC. Dooley came from Louisiana Tech, struggled to a 15-21 record in three seasons and made very few friends among the former alumni.
"With Coach Jones, when you walk into the facility now it's like you never left,” said former fullback Troy Fleming, who was with the Vols from 1999-2003. “The guys who have worked around the program for years are at ease now, which tells you things are good again. The biggest thing about Coach Jones is he actually does his job. Unlike that guy we call Derek Doolittle, who really did very little.”
And these were the kind comments.
Former tailback Corey Larkins, who played from 2000-03, blamed the losing mentality the Vols had seemingly adopted on Dooley’s inability to foster a winning attitude.
"I just want to see some fight,” Larkins said. “I've seen our guys for the last few years not only get beat to the ground, but then the other players push up off their chest to go back to the huddle and our guys just got up and walked back to the huddle. I want to see some guys with some fight and defend the program. That mentality came from the guy we had before Coach Jones. Derek Dooley was a loser. He'll always be a loser and he rubbed off on the program and created a losing attitude."
If there’s a positive, it’s that these former players think Jones can turn the program around. However, they might not want to be holding their breath for that to happen this season. Just about half of Tennessee’s team this season is new and with key positions, including quarterback, undecided heading into fall camp, the growing pains will be numerous.
But if some of the high-level recruits Jones has brought in pan out, the future for Tennessee could be very bright and perhaps the vitriol toward Kiffin and Dooley will subside.
- - - - - - -