Welcome back to the Blazer Chronicles. As we turn the page on another month, that familiar refrain vibrates throughout the Smokey Mountains and across the country; It’s Football Time, In Tennessee!! Football season official began on Tuesday as the Vols hit the field for their first practice and a group of Tennessee fans went to school with the University sponsored, Big Orange Football Warm Up and More. The Vols will practice this week in shorts and shirts and don the pads for the first time on Saturday. Competition is open at every position except Heisman Candidate Eric Berry’s safety spot and as that process unfolds, it will be interesting to watch. The Blazer Chronicles will provide you with more information as it becomes available.
Inside the Big Orange Football Warm Up and More, Vol fans were treated to Athletic Director Mike Hamilton telling the story of how Lane Kiffin was hired to the University of Tennessee. Mike took the podium after being introduced by long-time Vol historian Haywood Harris and spoke about how excited he was for the start of football season. Hamilton said that he and Gary Wyant, David Blackburn and John Currie went to work last year as soon as the announcement was made that Phillip Fulmer would not return as head coach. Hamilton said that as an athletic director, you continually have a “list” ready and it was time to use his. Hamilton hired a search firm ran by Chuck Neinas who specializes in college football coaching searches. The men took that list by car, not University or Pilot Oil plane as some message board fans would believe, to Atlanta where they met with Chuck Neinas and said that they got the list down from 20-30 names to 8-12. Hamilton then said that Thursday after the Wyoming game he first met with Lane Kiffin in Atlanta, under a “cloak of darkness”, this time meeting the others at a Shoneys in Lenoir City, parking a car there, and driving another vehicle to Atlanta where they checked in under false names. The first meeting with Kiffin lasted about 4 and half hours. As the search continued, Hamilton met with eight different coaches in four major cities. While he said he believed that all could have had success at Tennessee at the 8-9 win plateau, he was looking for a coach that could win championships and that he believed there to be a “couple” on the list that admittedly didn’t contain Lane Kiffin three years ago, that could have done that.
By this time in the process however, Hamilton was looking for someone that had a plan as a national recruiter, someone that had an operational plan of how the team was to be ran from academics to discipline and someone that had a staff already in mind. Hamilton was in Dallas meeting with two other coaches and decided he wanted to meet with Lane a second time. Mike called Lane and asked if he could fly from San Jose to Dallas and meet with him the next morning. Lane accepted and called Mike when he arrived, the two men met for what was supposed to be a brief time, but stretched past midnight and then again the next morning. Hamilton explained Lane as someone who was “jacked” at the early morning meeting even after being up late, and then having been up already that morning and worked out. The morning meeting was where the two discussed possible staff members. Hamilton said that while Tennessee has the highest paid assistant staff in college football, they have the 8th highest head coaching salary in the SEC, and only the 4th highest overall staff salary in the SEC. Lane Kiffin was offered the job late Friday after Thanksgiving and was flown into Knoxville during the last football game of the season against Kentucky. Kiffin stayed at the airport Hilton and was announced the following Monday as the fifth Tennessee head coach in 45 years.
Mike Hamilton concluded his comments by announcing that the Vol Walk this season will now be one hour and forty-five minutes prior to kickoff and will begin at the Torchbearer in Circle Park. The Pride of the Southland Marching Band will then follow the team into the stadium by coming down Andy Holt Drive via the new pedestrian mall where they will do the Salute to the Hill and march into Gate 21. Returning Tennessee lettermen will be in the locker room each game to read General Neyland’s maxims to the team before they take the field.
Overall, Mike Hamilton gave an informative and entertaining presentation about a situation that could turn out to be the “creation story” of a new era at Tennessee.
Mike was followed by former Vol punter and 1998 National Champion David Leaverton who now serves as the Field Director for U.S. Senator Bob Corker. David who is from Texas, told a recruiting story about being new to the SEC and even former head Coach Phil Fulmer. David’s father took a call from Fulmer who asked if he was the special teams coach to which Fulmer paused and said, no sir, I am the head coach. Leaverton then went on to talk about his collapse in 1997 at UCLA which cost him the rest of that season as a punter for Tennessee. He called the short punt leading to UCLA’s go-ahead score as the lowest point of his career at Tennessee. Leaverton said he wanted to quit and go home but that his Tennessee family kept him in Knoxville and he was glad they did. As Leaverton continued he talked about the 98 season and recalled the near 100 degree temperatures inside of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse, his first punt back which was a 51 yarder that excited him and legendary games against Florida and Arkansas. Leaverton said that in 1998, someone always stepped up when needed and that they really came together as that “Team of Destiny” after the win over Florida. Tennessee defeated 3 BCS teams, 4 Top 10 teams and 8 bowl teams in route to a 13-0 record and the 1998 National Title.
Steve Early, the General Manager of the Vol Network was next to speak to Vol fans and he talked about how excited he was to be working his “dream job”. Early grew up in Tennessee and is a Tennessee fan. He talked about how a lot of men in his position at other schools, didn’t grow up around the team they work for. Steve gets a call from Tennessee Legend John Ward every morning and says his network’s mission is to Communicate the Future while Celebrating the Past. To that end, Steve mentions that this year at each home football game, the same “Tennessee Yearbook” will be on sale but that a smaller Tennessee playbill will be free to those fans coming to Neyland Stadium. While the yearbook will have stories and information that stretches the entire season, they playbill will change each week and will have lineups and game info for each specific game.
Early discussed the four million dollar upgrade to the video board that Vol fans will see this season. He said the new board will be 100% digital and in true HD. While he knows that some Vol fans will miss the iconic V O L S on top of the south end of the stadium, he was glad to see the newer version leave. He didn’t like the way that the sign looked on top of the scoreboard these last 10 years and he said the new sign will be a symbol to all that shows the brand logo of the Power T, which was not yet a logo when the V O L S sign was first added to the stadium. The side of the Vol Tron facing the river will have three black and white photos on it that can be changed. They will be backlit and will always be seen. The three pictures that will go up first will be a full facemask, up close shot of Vol Safety Eric Berry, Tennessee Legend and Stadium Namesake General Robert Neyland and a photo of the “I will give my all for Tennessee” sign from inside the Vol locker room.
New Tennessee Strength and Conditioning Coach Aaron Ausmus stepped to the podium next to take the place of Assistant Head Coach, Recruiting Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach Ed Orgeron who could not attend due to a last minute change of schedule because of rain forcing practice inside near the end of the day.
Ausmus talked about his staff which has five fulltime members and three paid interns. His favorite part of the job is showing up to work in shorts and a t-shirt. Ausmus is a former All-American National Champion in the shot-put and was Tennessee’s strongest lifter during his time at Tennessee. Ausmus left Tennessee for USC in 1999 where he met and worked with Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron. Ausmus later joined Orgeron in Oxford as the Rebels Strength and Conditioning coach. Ausmus is the same age as head coach Lane Kiffin and has been married for nine years with 2 young sons. When asked about Eric Berry, Ausmus said that Berry is a vocal leader that guys gravitate toward. He said that Berry is a true natural athlete and a powerful lifter.
The last speaker was ESPN.com’s Chris Low who previously worked for the Nashville Tennessean. Having Low close was probably a bad idea considering the University of Florida and Tim Tebow love fest that he gave the Tennessee fans in attendance when discussing the SEC season. Low called Tebow the greatest college player of his generation and said that no one would make a run at the Gators this season in the SEC. Low also believes that Lane needs one to two more top 10 recruiting classes to reach the talent level of the LSU Tigers, Florida Gators and other “top teams” in the league. Low believes the league is more balanced than ever and contains very good coaches. Low believes Tennessee coaches will get young players on the field more quickly than the previous staff and that begins with Bryce Brown and NuKeese Richardson in 2009. Low believes that this year will be Steve Spurrier’s last in the SEC and that former Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer could end up at Louisville or some other “SEC type” school, outside of the conference.