KNOXVILLE — When Derek Dooley took over as the head football coach at Tennessee, he had plenty of problems to fix on the field with a roster thin on talent and short on bodies, partly due to attrition from the turnover of consecutive coaching changes.
As he’s in the early stages of his second year of fixing those problems, Dooley also is focusing heavily on changing the Volunteers off the field.
“I could talk forever about this,” Dooley said Friday after his team spent the afternoon at the Knoxville Police Department’s training facility. “I’ve always felt like we have a responsibility in the community, our football team and how we represent the community, and we’re in a leadership position with young people.”
Before Dooley’s arrival last January as Lane Kiffin’s replacement, the UT football program had developed a negative reputation for its players finding trouble away from the field.
While incidents of that nature may be somewhat inevitable as part of being on a college campus, Dooley has made tangible efforts and taken steps to improve the Vols in that area. He hired former UT defensive back Andre Lott to run the Vol for Life program and attempted to improve the relationship between football players and police officers with events such as last fall’s ride-alongs and Friday’s trip.
“This is under our VFL umbrella — learning more than football and what they teach you in school,” Dooley said. “This is real-life stuff right here. I hope this day right here is going to have an impact on every one of these young people when they get out of here and they’re in another town and they have some encounter and engagement with an authority figure.
“Once you develop that respect, you don’t have the fear, and you certainly know how to act because you appreciate the sensitivity and the pressure of the situation.”
Senior tailback Tauren Poole said he never had been a part of an event like Friday’s during his UT career, which spans three coaches and three different systems of discipline.
“There’s good cops, there’s bad cops, there’s good football players and there’s bad football players,” Poole said. “That’s just the way it is. I’m just glad we got to come out here and bond a little bit. Hopefully this will help us not get in so much trouble. Everybody makes their own decisions — it’s the decisions you make that’s going to affect what you do.”
Since the infamous Bar Knoxville brawl last July, two Vols have been arrested: defensive end Jacques Smith in October for simple assault and safety Brent Brewer in February for a domestic assault charge that later was reduced. Smith didn’t miss any playing time and Brewer returned from a five-week suspension to have an excellent spring practice.
The VFL program became a big hit with the 2011 recruiting class, which turned the three-letter acronym into a slogan and source of pride. The program’s basic goal is educating players in topics beyond the field, such as how to handle money and leadership skills.
It’s become a selling point in recruiting and has helped Dooley and his staff identify what prospective recruits might fit best into a program that’s placing more of an emphasis on bringing in players with quality character to go with quality football skills.
“If you’re a young man and that appeals to you,” Dooley said in February, “what does it say about your character? By me selling that program, if a guy, that doesn’t interest him, then I don’t care how good he is, I probably won’t enjoy coaching him, so maybe he should go somewhere else. If I only sold the NFL, there’s a lot of other issues when they come on campus that I’m going to have to deal with that may not be so well.
“When you sell the right stuff, it allows me to know when they come here, everybody understands what I stand for, they understand what the expectations are.”
As the expectations for how much the Vols win on the field under Dooley continue to increase, the standards for behavior and conduct off it are likely to grow as well.
“It’s important to me as a head coach that we develop them as people,” Dooley said in February. “It’s something that is important to me.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...