MARYVILLE - The tumultuous offseason for the University of Tennessee football program that led to the hiring of new coach Derek Dooley has been a blessing in disguise, according former NFL star Herschel Walker.
"Derek (Dooley) has done very well and is a very smart young man," Walker said. "I've known him since he was a little boy. I'm happy to see him here and see (former UT coach Lane) Kiffin leave."
Walker was in Maryville on Saturday as part of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride. The cross-country motorcycle ride in support of Kyle and Pattie Petty's Victory Junction Camp for chronically ill children made a stop at Smoky Mountain Harley Davidson where Walker and former NASCAR great Harry Gant greeted and signed autographs for fans.
Walker has known Dooley since the UT coach was a teenager. Walker played for Dooley's father, Vince, at the University of Georgia (1980-83). Even then, the younger Dooley's intelligence and football knowledge stood out to Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner.
"I think he (Dooley) is going to do well," Walker said. "He's always loved football. I think Tennessee is going to be very happy with him. One thing about Coach Dooley is he believes in running the ball. In the SEC that's what you've got to do."
Walker was less charitable to Kiffin, who left Tennessee to take over the head coaching job at Southern Cal after one season.
"He (Kiffin) is a guy you don't want to trust at all," Walker said. "I think it's sad when you trust your kids with someone like that and they leave."
Walker has ridden on the Petty's charity ride for the last six years after visiting with chronically ill children and their families at the Victory Junction camp. The Camp was built in honor of Adam Petty, Kyle and Pattie's son, who died May 12, 2000, in a practice run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"It's been 10 years this week since he (Adam) has been gone and it's a powerful way to keep his dream alive," Pattie Petty said. "We try to introduce people to the plight of the chronically ill child. The camp gives them the opportunity to be empowered. That's what we want everybody to understand."
When Walker met the children at the camp the first time, he knew he had to help any way he could.
"I went to the camp and that's what really touched me," Walker said. "It gives me a chance to see the kids smile. That's what this ride is trying to do, to raise money to send a kid to camp for free. The (Petty) family has done something really special here."
Walker and Gant have been joined on portions of this year's ride by supermodel Niki Taylor and NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth. Kyle Petty had to leave Saturday due to his broadcasting duties for TNT, but will return to the road today.
Adam Greene is a freelance contributor.