KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Although they don't know if they will be coaching at the University of Tennessee next season, many of the coaches on the 2012 staff are grateful for their time with the Vols and feel very positive about the future of the school and the program.
"This is a great place," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "You have every resource here at Tennessee to do some of the things that some of the other schools that are top-10 or ranked now. You have the big stadium, you have the nice facilities, a new facility, over 100,000 people every weekend and the Vol Walk is probably the best pregame venue in college football. You have everything you need to be successful here."
The struggles of the Vols' defense have been well documented, but defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri holds no ill will and has enjoyed his time at Rocky Top.
"I have a lot of respect for a lot of you guys (media) and a lot of the people in Knoxville, Tennessee," Sunseri said. "This is a great town, a great university and the bottom line is that you need to get it done, somehow, someway to get this program back to what it needs to be. I am telling everybody here thank you for the opportunity. I am telling everybody here that it has been a great experience for me and my family, we have been treated first class. It was a good situation."
No one on the staff knows Tennessee better than former Vols star tailback Jay Graham and the 2004 graduate doesn't have any regrets about leaving his post at South Carolina to return to Knoxville.
"No, I'd do it again," Graham said. "It's my university. I like this place. We did what we could do. I wouldn't think about it. If I had a second opportunity, I'd do it."
LOOKING FOR THE FINAL WIN
Much like the players, the Tennessee coaches are trying to finish the 2012 season with a bang and earn that final win.
The coaches have stressed many times what finishing the year with a win would mean to the seniors, the program and the fans. They have also stressed what playing hard until the end means for the underclassmen.
“Every time you take a snap, it’s your resume, it’s who you are,” wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. “‘What is your resume going to say?’ for the underclassmen. And the seniors, ‘How are you going to leave the field on your last day in Neyland Stadium and walking out of there and what do you want to feel like when you leave there?’ Same thing with the underclassmen. ‘How’s everybody going to remember you from this season and your situation?’ You never know in life what’s going to happen. For some of these guys, it could be their last snap. You never know. Go out there every opportunity you get and give everything you’ve got.”
Last season, the players and staff were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after the loss to Kentucky. This season, despite the record, beating Kentucky means a new beginning for Tennessee.
“Well I think it would mean a new start,” safeties coach Josh Conklin said. “Whoever is here as a head coach, or whoever their position coaches end up being, what they have to understand is that the leadership is always going to come from within. It’s always going to be team driven, I really believe that.
“They have to look at this as an opportunity for them to grow closer. Another guy comes in, he’s going to have his own principles and the things he is going to establish his program around, but it’s still going to be team driven. When a team understands it’s led from within, I think they really understand the concept of what it takes to win football games at any level.”
The coaches have driven this into their players heads by telling them of the opportunities a win would present, but also reminding them of their obligation to their university.
“What we are trying to stress is be a man,” offensive line coach Sam Pittman said. “You have an obligation to man up. We all have problems in this world. The problems that they have are nothing like they are going to have in their life, unfortunately. We just told them to man up, let’s go play and let’s get a win for the university.”
FOCUSING ON THE TASK AT HAND
Having gone through an in-season coaching change during his time at the University of Pittsburgh, Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is aware of the challenges it presents and what needs to be done to get the team ready to play.
“Any time you get in transition like this, it is a very tough situation for everybody that is part of the organization,” Sunseri said. “Getting these kids out there, getting them focused to go out there and understand they have one more game. They have to go out, they have to play for the University of Tennessee, they have to play and have pride in what they are putting out there.”
Effort has not been an issue in practice this week, but rather it has been keeping the team focused on a common goal. Sunseri said the veteran players have played a key role in getting the Orange and White ready to play and finish what has been a difficult season on a positive note.
“The energy has been good but the total detail of technique and preparation, understanding what is going on [has been lacking],” Sunseri said. “You always have this in this situation, because you have mature guys and you have immature guys. Maturity, usually the older guys, step up and do it. The younger guys probably are thinking what is going on, who is the next coach, instead of being focused on what is at hand. And what is at hand is playing against the University of Kentucky.”
The team has improved its focus with each day of practice this week and Sunseri knows that will have to continue all the way until kickoff Saturday as the Wildcats have an offense that can make the Tennessee defense pay if it is not focused and prepared.
“What we are getting ready to do is go play Kentucky,” Sunseri said. “They have a quarterback from down in Alabama from out of Prattville who has very good feet. These guys like to run the ball and then play action you and hit you over the top. The kids are out there at practice this week, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it was a distraction, but they went out there and had a better day today. It’s been a good week. We have to come back in here and polish it up tomorrow and get things right.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On whether the team was distracted last week)
“I really didn’t. I thought the kids practiced hard and all that. They went out and they played tough and they did a lot of good things. We made some plays in the first half then we gave up that silly one on the first play [of the second half], but then they came back on goal line and stepped up. The did a hell of a job down there. I think they had nine possessions and we held them in six. I thought it was good. They battled and they scratched, but this week has been a little bit tougher for them. I’m not going to kid anybody. A lot of them had great relationships with Coach Dooley and it has been tough.”
(On playing hard to the end)
“It doesn’t change, you could have all of the experience that you want, it is still the kids coming and wanting to go out and perform for the university and do what they need to do. A lot of these kids have to understand that regardless of who is here or what’s going on, the next guys that come in are going to look at this tape and evaluate their performance to see exactly what they are about. Hopefully they understand that, because that is what is happening.”
(On working hard at his job)
“It has been fine, I am a grown man and I understand, when you take jobs and you do this you think you can get everything taken care of. Apparently it didn’t work out but me, myself, it doesn’t matter. Like I told you guys last week, I am going into the office at 6:30 a.m., I am going to break down the film and I am going to give the kids every bit of information that is going to help them to perform. They have to have the ability to absorb it, go apply it and go have fun with it. And that is the way it is.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On taking risks and coaching)
“It’s about being competitive. The success they didn’t have in the last couple of years… we thought we could come in here and make a difference. Obviously, we didn’t get it done. As a competitor, you always look at situation and think you can make a difference. And we did that in some cases. We played some good defense at times and sometimes we didn’t. Bottom line is we didn’t get it done. That’s what it comes down to.”
(On team’s attitude)
“Today, we had to get them going a little more than usual. There are some guys out there that are just playing around and not focused all the way through practice. But then you have some guys that are busting their tails trying to get better. We have to make sure we smooth those guys out and get the win this weekend.”
(On lack of coaching energy)
“No. I bring the same energy every day. From a game plan standpoint, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in practice, I’m not changing who I am just because of the circumstances that are out of my control. It’s my job to go put the best product on the field on Saturday. So that’s what I’m focused on. I’m the same guy.”
(On losing Brian Randolph)
“Not really. I mean, you have to put a younger guy in there, but LaDarrell is only one year younger than Brian. LaDarrell is a really good player. Obviously, he did not get to make the freshman mistakes that Brian made last year, and his were a little more scrutinized and things like that, but he’s a really good player. He’s going to be an NFL player in a couple years. We just had to throw him in the fire a little bit earlier than we wanted to, but it’s going to work out for his benefit in the long run.”
SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On being a defensive coordinator previously)
“It means a lot, it really does. I try not to look back and I try not to reflect on a decision made here or a decision made there. Whenever you make a decision, especially in this business, you look at all the factors and you look at all the things outside of what it can do for you professionally. You also have to look at it from a faith standpoint, we prayed about it as a family. You say, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take this chance. Like I just told the last guy, you control the effort and God controls the outcome. Right now, this is the outcome and there’s a plan. We just have to figure out what the next plan is for Tennessee, for us as coaches, for players, everyone is kind of in that situation right now.”
(On team’s preparation)
“I think like Jim said yesterday, they were a little lethargic. They will be ready on Saturday. These coaches are professionals. They’ve done a good job of getting them ready. We’ve done a good job of getting them ready. Coordinators have put together a good game plan. I think the players will know their responsibility for these seniors and to end this thing the right way. It’s all about finishing. That’s the one thing we can do right now. We have one game and finish like a man, so we can hang our hat like a man.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On the memory of this season that will stick out 10 years from now)
”The hardest thing about it is that I haven’t looked back on it. I can’t look back on it until we finish this game. I’m just trying to focus on the practice ahead and getting these kids prepared for the Kentucky game.”
(On previous experience in a situation like this)
“As a coach. At Miami of Ohio, we had this situation after the last game. This is the first time I’ve been through it during the season.”
(On the reaction among the team on Sunday)
“It was tough. It was tough for the kids because they have a lot on their minds, but the biggest thing we try to do is get them focused on the next practice and just be there for each other. They’re just focused and locked in on this game, and that’s the most important thing. The seniors have dealt with so much, and we want to send them off the right way. And send the team out the right way.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On the penalty called on Cordarrelle Patterson as he entered the end zone vs. Vanderbilt)
“It was a unique situation. He saw a penalty flag and turned around and knew he was going to score and he was wondering what the penalty was for. He was upset about it. It looked like he was taunting, but he wasn’t. He was very innocent on the play I thought and that’s what he said. You can see in his action on the field, it was not one that he was trying to taunt anybody. The officials looked at it as he was trying to back up into the end zone. But he was just looking at the other penalty flag that was thrown up, way up in the air. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. But we’ve talked to him numerous times about that.”
(On if the receivers have gone to him for advice for after the season)
“We talked to them about, ‘Hey, let’s go out and win this game. Finish this game and then all of that discussion will be discussed after this game.’”
(On if assistants feel a sense of responsibility for Dooley’s dismissal)
“Well, I can only speak for myself. I gave everything that I had every day for Coach Dooley and worked my tail off. And that’s all I’m going to do for any coach. Under the circumstances, and there’s a lot of things that I can’t control as an assistant in decisions that are made, different plays that are made and all these things that happen out there. That’s how I look at it. I’m going to give everything I’ve got for whoever the head coach is and I’m going to go work my butt off and that’s never going to change.”
(On if it’s easier said than done to focus on the game at hand)
“The things that you can control – I mean it is for me. I focus on what I can control. I get to coach this game, I get to coach my players and I get to go into a situation where I get to be a Tennessee coach for one more game. And then we’ll see what happens. And then I’ll worry about that and I’ll go make all of my connections and get ready for the next phase in my life and my family’s life after that situation. But right now, there’s nothing to worry about because I can’t control that. But I can coach this game the best I can and work hard."
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On the progression of the defensive line)
“I thought particularly the last two games we made a lot of improvement. I though throughout the season we did some good things. Were we good enough? Obviously not. But I am not down on the kids. I thought the kids fought and did a good job.”
(On if his age reflects not feeling emotional)
“I think it is my age. I don’t think it is my personality. Twenty years ago I would be pissed off at the world but I am not by any stretch of the imagination, I am not bitter with anything that transpired here. We did not do a good enough job to keep our jobs this year. That is the reality of it. We could have done better, we didn’t. That is just the way the cookie crumbles. This is a great place there is good people here. Whoever comes in next will hopefully get it turned around and they will be headed in the right direction.”
(On how many times he has been through something like this during his career)
“This particular situation, I have really only been through it in 39 years I have been through it twice before this. The first time I was kept, that was at Memphis State many years ago when Richard Williamson was let go and Rick Stockwood became the head coach. The second time was at the University of Miami when we actually went to a bowl game and won the bowl game but Coach Coker was relieved of his duties. That really had more to do not with winning and losing but with all the things that had happened during the season that year. I had a defensive lineman, Pata, that was murdered. Then there was a fight in the FIU game. I think there was a lot of other things that led to that other than the winning and losing part. We were actually a really good defense that year. We broke the Miami rush run record that year defensively.. So we were a good defense. This is the third time in 39 years that I have had to go through this.”
(On what he will take away from this year)
“A lot of first halves. The Florida first half, the last two games – the first half. I think a lot of first halves. I don’t know if there is a lot more to remember. I think beating NC State in the opener was a nice deal for our football team. Other than that there isn’t a whole lot to cherish.
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On practice this week)
“We didn’t practice very well yesterday, they had a lot on their minds and we talked about it last night. We have an obligation, all of us, the University of Tennessee is paying me and they are paying them in their scholarships. We have an obligation to our fans and we really needed to practice better and we had a good practice today.”
(On the O-Line being one of the best in the country helping his cause to stay)
“It didn’t hurt. The only thing is that the new coach either has an O-Line coach that he is familiar with and likes or he doesn’t. If he does, then I have to go find other employment, but if he doesn’t hopefully I have the chance to visit with him.”
(On the players wanting him to be retained)
“A little bit, I think it made it harder for them, the unknowing, but this is the University of Tennessee. If they don’t retain me they will find somebody that is going to come in and do a nice job. Obviously I would like to be a part of it but it is one of those things. That is my style, at North Carolina I got close to the guys. I am not a buddy-buddy guy with them, but I am close to them because they know I care about them. It has been different this week.”
(On the health of the line)
“We are. I think we are as healthy as we have been for a while. We have those seven guys that are really healthy that we have been playing with.”