ELIZABETHTON — Milligan College might never host another week-long football camp, and time will tell if the 2012 college season will vault Derek Dooley into a distinguished coaching career.
But Dooley and his Tennessee Volunteers’ outside-the-box odyssey to Milligan accomplished the third-year coach’s mission.
In fact, Dooley was satisfied after Wednesday morning’s spirited practice, one that was cut short five minutes by an approaching storm. So around 6 p.m. he let the players know that their final practice, scheduled for 7, was canceled, and the Vols would be returning to Knoxville momentarily instead of spending a seventh straight night in Milligan’s dorms.
“They liked to have jumped out of their skins,” Milligan vice president for student development Mark Fox said.
Not that the Vols didn’t enjoy their stay. Imposed technological constraints helped the players connect with one another. So did talent shows and karaoke.
“It’s been great,” Dooley said after the final practice before riding away solo across the hilly campus on his orange Kawasaki golf cart. “I think it helped our team, I think it helped our staff and I hope it pays off this fall.”
Many of the UT players resembled teenagers reluctant to go on vacation with their parents shortly after arrival last week, but no skeptics were to be found Wednesday.
“We’ve had some team-bonding experiences, you know, where some of the freshmen have gotten up there and did a little talent show and stuff,” said red-shirt freshman center Mack Crowder, a Tennessee High graduate. “We’ve all had a great time so far and gotten a whole lot closer and a lot better as a football team.”
Junior defensive tackle Daniel Hood embraced the few-frills environment.
“Up here we don’t have some of the things that we have in Knoxville,” Hood said. “So we have to get used to playing without having a cold tub, you know — not having 1,800 Gatorades or something like that. … I may have my phone 30 minutes a day right now. We don’t really have internet, because we weren’t allowed to bring our computers and things like that.
“So the only thing we’ve got is our teammates. It’s been awesome.”
Well, companionship wasn’t joy’s only sustenance. Many Vols complimented the food, which seemed to be reinforced at lunch Wednesday by how eagerly the players autographed footballs for chefs Mark Henry and Cory Edmundson.
“They want to hire our cooks,” Milligan president Bill Greer said while eating lunch.
Greer’s wife, Edwina, responded by shaking her head ‘no’ through a smile.
“We’re happily employed,” Edmundson said.
The week at Milligan, a school without a football program for 62 years and counting, seemed like a potential recipe for disaster. Obviously, UT’s staff orchestrated operations daily, but Milligan clearly provided a favorable atmosphere under the guidance of Fox.
Too much rain before Tennessee’s arrival and the forecast for more on the Vols’ first practice day was handled smoothly when Science Hill and the City of Johnson City offered Kermit Tipton Stadium for last Friday on 15 hours notice. Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner said it was an easy call when considering how many times Milligan has assisted the Hilltoppers with facilities and other issues.
UT’s players were impressed with Science Hill’s Steve Spurrier Field, and the Vols made a heck of a first impression at Milligan.
“They let me thank the team on behalf of Milligan for being here,” Greer said, “and what I really wanted to thank them for was being such fantastic ambassadors for the University of Tennessee. I’m an alum of both Milligan and UT. I have been really proud to have them here, and they have been fantastic all the way around. But it was Mark Fox who really made it such a successful week for Milligan.
“They underestimated Milligan College. For a school that doesn’t have football, it was sort of a stretch for people to think about Milligan hosting it. But our classroom facilities, our dorm facilities, our residence hall facilities and our fields and athletic facilities have been perfect for them. They’re secluded enough that they’re out of the public view and we’re able to protect them.”
Crowder smiled while mentioning how the Seeger Chapel chimes were still serenading players to practice with “Rocky Top” on Wednesday. Many memories from Milligan will remain vivid through time for Crowder.
“The talent shows and stuff , just the team getting together and having a great time, and probably just getting to come somewhere off campus with the team to kind of get away from Knoxville a little bit and experience something all together that we’ll never forget,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know if they’re gonna do this again next year, but I think we’ve all really enjoyed it and we’ve gotten a lot out of it. I think even though some guys who think it’s a hassle, it’s been really good for them, and I think that they got a lot more out of it than they thought they did.”
Dooley wouldn’t discuss any potential such undertakings in the future, but the door is open.
“My hope is they have a fantastic year, and if they do, we’re gonna take all the credit for it that we can,” Greer said. “And as superstitious as athletes are, we’ll look for them to be back, and we would welcome them back. I have been truly impressed with the way this team has conducted themselves on and off the fields, particularly off. …
“They’ve been very cordial and they’ve been very grateful and gracious guests. And I think they’ve had a great experience. My sense is it’s been perfect for them (Tennessee). They’ve raved about it.”
Of course, the week did seem to be winding down in timely fashion. After all, there’s no place like home, especially when it’s the lavish environs of UT’s athletic facilities, and players are getting a bit “edgy” according to Dooley.
“It’s been good for team camaraderie,” Dooley said, “but at some point you start getting on each other’s nerves. … I need to see my wife. It’s getting a little edgy in that staff room, too.”
It sounds like UT found the competitive edge it sought.