KNOXVILLE — Ja'Wuan James and Jacques Smith know how the uncertainty feels.
Both Tennessee football players remember the program's last coaching change when Lane Kiffin bolted to Southern California in 2009 the night before they were to attend their first classes of college.
With Derek Dooley's dismissal as coach earlier this week, a chunk of Tennessee's roster is now in a similar state. The unknown is eerily familiar.
"I think it's very difficult for them," Smith, a junior linebacker from Ooltewah High School, said of the younger Volunteers. "It definitely changes everything for them. They really made a four-year plan to make a decision to come to a university, and to not know where the operations of the university's going, I feel like that's a huge impact on their lives."
Added James, a junior offensive tackle: "You came here for somebody, and you came here thinking they were going to be here all four years."
Like their hopeful fan base, the Vols are wondering who the next leader will be, though the players are doing what they can to move forward from Dooley's ouster and focus on Saturday's finale against Kentucky. Once that game is done, however, the Vols certainly will have an eye on the pending hire and how it might impact their individual careers.
There's been a sense of unknown surrounding the future of the program during the last month of the season, but now it takes on a different perspective.
"I wouldn't say it's difficult," sophomore offensive tackle Tiny Richardson said. "I would say your mind's kind of everywhere. It's kind of like, 'Who's it going to be? Who's it going to be?'
"Whoever it is, I know they'll bring in somebody good. I'm not worried about it. I know that the administration will do a good job bringing somebody in."
When Kiffin surprisingly left after one season in 2009, the Vols tabbed Dooley as his replacement by the end of the week. Barring something bizarre, this search and the accompanying wait will go longer than that. With teams and potential coaching candidates around the country finishing their seasons this weekend and next, the search may not be off and running just yet.
"I think it's hard on every human being that's involved with transition," offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jim Chaney said. "Transition's a part of our game. We put on our big-boy pads when you walk into programs like Tennessee, and you understand those things are possibilities.
"When they come forward, you attack them, and you try to gain something out of it, grow as an individual, learn from it and develop yourself as a player. That's all you could ever do. We talk constantly to our players about controlling the things they can, and most of that's their attitude and their effort."
Those who were around for Kiffin's departure three years ago learned then the business side of the sport.
"I've been through this before, and it's just part of the business," Smith said. "This is college football, and this is the ugly side of it. Tennessee has seen that side too many times.
"I'm not really tired of change. I'm just tired of losing. We just need to come together and win, and that's the way I feel."
James said he learned a lesson then that the Vols' underclassmen are working through now.
"Now I'm not really shocked by it or anything. I was when I first got here," he said. "I just know that's the nature of this business that we're in, that stuff changes and stuff happens.
"Coach Kiffin was making the choice, so everybody was surprised. Nobody was surprised right now. We expected this to happen [because] everybody has been talking about it and stuff like that."
As the program has seen the past few years, attrition is a big part of coaching changes. Richardson said he's not heard any talk of any players already looking to transfer. The bigger question for Tennessee might be some of the juniors who could elect for the NFL draft.
Though they said last week they were waiting until after the season to think about their decisions, receivers and potential first-round picks Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson appear likely to leave. What quarterback Tyler Bray will do is more of a mystery. Other juniors, such as James, guard Zach Fulton and perhaps even nose tackle Daniel McCullers, also could consider leaving early.
"I would most definitely try to encourage guys to stay, because if you want to have a good team, you can't have guys running in and running out," Richardson said. "I'm going to talk to guys, if anybody's thinking about it, and just talk to them and be like, 'Hey, man, we've got to man up.'
"This is still our school, we've got business to take care of next year trying to win a championship and get to a bowl game, and this is what we signed up for."
Whom they signed up for will be different, though.
"It's just one more year left for me," Smith said, "and I don't know what's going to happen."
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 ...