From Seeger Chapel’s chimes at Milligan College to the orange-clad players coating the synthetic surface at Science Hill’s Steve Spurrier Field, everywhere you turned Friday there seemed to be Rocky ’Toppers.
Science Hill was already prepared to host the University of Tennessee football team’s closed scrimmage today at 3:30 p.m., but the forecast for more rain Friday after a soggy week spurred the decision Thursday night to move the Volunteers’ first practice from Milligan to Science Hill.
The Tennessee team and staff, some 200 strong, arrived at Milligan on Thursday night for a week of practice that is also expected to be a unity-building break from convention.
Moving Friday’s initial practice began being discussed around 7 p.m. on Thursday with Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner, and it was a done deal some two hours later. Tennessee initially wanted to practice in a time slot that would’ve overlapped much of Science Hill’s practice Friday. As it turned out, the Vols practiced from 1:25-3 p.m. and the Hilltoppers immediately followed at their regularly scheduled time.
“It’s taken a lot of cooperation with city officials, schools officials – especially today with the concern about us being in school,” Turner said. “We had to make sure it wasn’t gonna disrupt our day, because we’ve already had our days disrupted by the weather. From what I’ve seen, it worked out great.”
The number of onlookers seemed low, although that figure is expected to rise today. One man who was told to quit taking pictures through the fence from the Roller Field baseball outfield above the stadium, was told by security to leave the property after he apparently failed to comply.
Science Hill took the field within seconds of Tennessee’s exit. In fact, the Hilltoppers were practicing while Vols such as Devrin Young, Brendan Downs and Mack Crowder were being interviewed 20 yards from the sideline about playing against Science Hill in high school.
Young rushed for two TDs as a sophomore in 2008 when Bearden won 21-3 at Science Hill, although it took place at the Hilltoppers’ previous home, Memorial Stadium.
“It was at the bowl – the other stadium,” Young said. “But it looks like they had to step their game up since Dobyns-Bennett got they turf field now. But yeah, it looks real nice out here and their team looks pretty good.”
Young even mentioned being the Hilltoppers’ guest for homecoming that Friday night four years ago.
“Not trying to rub it in,” Young said with a smile, “but nobody likes being the homecoming game.”
Come to think of it, later that year Wyoming was Tennessee’s guest when it spoiled Phillip Fulmer’s final homecoming.
Everyone other than East Tennessee State seemed eager to play host to the Volunteers this week. Frankly, seeing the Vols working with Milligan vice president for student development Mark Fox was a reminder that former Lady Vol Monica Abbott and Jennie Finch were leading Team USA in an exhibition against Milligan – not ETSU – when they passed through Johnson City in the spring of 2008 while preparing for Olympic gold.
Milligan was rewarded handsomely in financial terms – $80,000 was the popular figure going around Friday, although attempting to get confirmation – or refutation, for that matter – draws crickets.
A reception for the Volunteers was held shortly after the players arrived and found their dorms Thursday night, and Young was quick to mention how much he enjoyed the dinner that Milligan’s Mark Henry and Corey Edmondson orchestrated right up the hill from where “Rocky Top” was booming from chapel chimes. But despite the homey touches, some Vols were slow to warm to straying from the norm.
“I wasn’t too much excited about it,” senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said.
Indeed, going from the amenities of Tennessee’s Gibbs Hall to the Hart dormitory wouldn’t cause someone to break into The Jeffersons theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” as Waggner’s initial response attests.
“The reaction was real so-so, but I think we got adjusted to it,” he said. “I know today all the guys were like, ‘Ah man, this is the best sleep I ever had.’ Those white mattresses they got in there are real comfortable.”
It was dream-like when UT receiver Vincent Dallas told Waggner during practice to look at the Tipton Stadium scoreboard, which has “Steve Spurrier Field” prominently displayed. “‘Steve Spurrier’ Steve Spurrier?” was the response from a confused Waggner.
A player or assistant coach yelled “Spurrier Field, baby” when practice began.
“To tell you the truth,” Young said, “I think half the guys didn’t even know it was the real Steve Spurrier unless you told them.”
Spurrier gave a $100,000 to Science Hill, helping ensure that the stadium was named after his coach, Kermit Tipton, who died in April. Spurrier was at Science Hill in July. The campus’ celebrated summer included a Peyton Manning workout on Spurrier Field in late June after playing in the Niswonger Children’s Hospital charity golf outing.
“I think he (Spurrier) is a generous man to give back to his high school, so I commend him for what he has done,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “It’s a tribute to the fact that he was a great player, a great coach and made a lot of money. When that happens, you get your name on the field.”
Walking across the field brought back memories for Downs, a backup tight end who is momentarily first-string with Mychal Rivera banged up. Downs made a deep, clutch catch while helping Tennessee High rally to beat the Hilltoppers in 2010. Simply reentering the visitors’ locker room on Friday reminded him of his catch around the 20-yard-line.
“I’ve got good memories on this field,” he said, “so it feels good to be back.”
The Vols seemed a half-second behind in conversation, as if they’re still settling into surreal settings. According to Dooley, it spilled over into Friday’s workout in a somewhat displeasing way, but surely that didn’t come as a complete surprise under the circumstances. Players appeared confident that the week away will pull them closer together.
“It’s a little odd,” said Downs, who attended a basketball camp at Milligan before his freshman year of high school. “It’s different, but it’s still football – still focused on football. … It’s kind of fun. … There definitely are fewer distractions, just to get away. We’re all here together – a little team-bonding experience.”
The first 24 hours after Tennessee departed on the two-hour bus ride from Knoxville was all it took for many Vols’ apprehension to morph into anticipation.
“It’s new scenery, but I think we’ll adjust to it real well,” said Waggner, who expects there to be more camaraderie when the Vols return to Knoxville on Thursday. “Yes sir, because we’re far away from campus and we all gotta be around each other 24-7. We pretty much were already like that in camp, but I think when we came to Milligan it’s a little more compact and jammed in together.”
The trip feels like an adventure for Young.
“It’s fun,” Young said. “It’s a good experience. Even in high school I never went away for camp. We always stayed right at the school, so it’s different for me. …
“It’s a good opportunity for us to stay focused on staying focused outside of our comfort zone and outside of the normal schedule in Knoxville.”
Notes: Touted JUCO receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (shoulder) is questionable for the today’s scrimmage, but there’s no questioning his skills. Along with Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, Patterson gives the Vols arguably the best receiving corps in the SEC, if not the nation, according to Waggner. “Guys ask me all the time who’s the best receiver out of Justin and Da’Rick, and you really don’t have an answer for it, because they’re two totally different guys,” Waggner said. “Justin is more of a shifty guy with a whole bunch of athletic ability. Da’Rick is more of a big, strong guy that can run good routes. … Patterson is sort of a niche between both of them, but not as polished yet, because he just got here. But I think once he gets his polish down and gets back on the field … he’s gonna be real, real good.” … Chalk hashmarks will be put on the field for today’s scrimmage, because hashes on college fields are more narrow than those on high school fields. … The Junior Toppers football season starts today. There will be three games before Tennessee’s scrimmage, beginning at 8 a.m., and three more following the scrimmage, which will start at 7 p.m. … Working security at Tipton Stadium on Friday was former Hilltopper Anthony McInturff, who played football at North Carolina State for Monte Kiffin when Pete Carroll was an assistant. Tennessee opens against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome on Friday, Aug. 31.