They aren’t afraid to talk about the bar brawl.
First-year University of Tennessee football coach Derrick Dooley and three of his senior players got a little practice before their Friday appearance at SEC Media Days when they answered questions Thursday at the UT All Sports Picnic held at David Lipscomb’s Allen Arena. None of group wasted time guessing what the number one topic of discussion is going to be the next day in Hoover, Ala.
“We know we’re going to hear about it 38 times down there,” defensive end Chris Walker said.
Dooley’s stated intention since his arrival in Knoxville has been to restore the character of the program and to live up to the Tennessee football tradition. Needless to say, an assault of an off-duty police officer that implicates multiple players is the antithesis of his ideal Volunteer culture.
“I had to respond right away to that incident so I’ve had a lot of time since then to digest,” Dooley said. “It’s certainly not something we’re proud of. We were embarrassed by it. But I think with any incident like that you have to learn from it, move on, never forget it, always [let it] be a reminder of what we represent, the institution we represent and how much harm we can bring to it.”
Dooley’s culture of character is not something that arrives over night. He says it’s something players must prove over time.
“You can go 20 years of doing everything perfect and you make one mistake, you’ve got to start over and rebuild it,” he said. “That’s where we’re at now.”
The drawl-speaking lawyer has instilled a uniformed response to the brawl amongst his seniors. Walker, Luke Stocker, and Nick Reveiz had near identical answers to questions about the incident and accepted blame as a unit.
“We can’t run from it,” Walker said. “Our guys made a mistake, as a team we made a mistake and we embarrassed a bunch of people. But we aren’t afraid of answering any questions.”
“We made a mistake and it’s not just those guys, it’s the whole team,” Reveiz, a fifth-year senior linebacker, said “We let the state of Tennessee down but we’re going to make a positive outcome from this situation. We’re going to get better because of it.”
Added Stocker, a senior tight end: “As players we understand that mistakes have been made and we take that responsibility as players and as a team.”
They also presented a united front in regard to Dooley’s reaction to the incident.
Sophomore safety Darren Myles was dismissed from the team for his involvement (it was his second arrest this offseason). Defensive tackle Marlon Walls and linebacker Greg King were suspended indefinitely.
“We trust Ccoach Dooley completely,” Reveiz said. “We know that he has a lot of wisdom, he knows what he’s doing, and we’re behind his decisions 100 percent.”
For the Vols, Media Days and the approaching season are opportunities to switch the headlines to something positive. Walker knows that Dooley’s concept of program integrity could alter the perceptions of Tennessee football, but he also knows filling up the left-hand column in the standings is an effective way to change subject in the short term.
“If we win games people won’t talk about it as much but we also have to do things off the field to show people that we’re not these thugs that they see on TV,” he said.
The Vols have their work cut out if they aim to produce this season. The team is adapting to its third different coaching staff in as many years. Plus, Lane Kiffin’s abrupt departure as signing day approached last winter brought on an exodus of recruits and players, which left a lot of question marks in UT’s depth chart.
Those who remain, however, insist the off-field distractions don’t override their focus on the game.
“We’re focused on what’s about to come,” Stocker said. “We’ve got a week and a half and we’re at camp so really that’s all our guys are focused on right now. And they have to be; it’s time. The season is about here.”
It’s been a tumultuous offseason. Fans may be more concerned with short-term results on the field that Stocker hopes can be obtained through the Vols offseason efforts, but the coach is sticking to his guns. Dooley wants to build a culture of class at Tennessee, despite the obstacles.
“I think the biggest thing is just having our team represent this institution with class at all times,” Dooley said. “Knowing that there are going to be mistakes and there’s always going to be things that young people do that don’t’ make you happy but at the end of the day I want our fan base to be walking around proud to be Volunteers every day of the year.”