COLUMBIA, S.C. - Duane Sharpe didn't get very far into his question.
"Since the offense is already going to be struggling," the Columbia resident began only to have a smiling Derek Dooley cut in.
"I didn't say that," the first-year Tennessee coach said with a chuckle and tone of mock protest while emphasizing the word that. "I don't want to be spreading doom and gloom here."
Dooley's reaction drew a laugh from the approximately 180 alumni and fans on hand at Seawell's Caterers, the site of the latest stop of the Big Orange Caravan on Tuesday night. But the exchange set the tone for evening's question-and-answer session: a light-hearted thrust-and-parry session in which Dooley delivered straight talk laced with plenty of humor.
Questions ranged from his offense, scheduling and recruiting philosophies to the in-the-news issues of former player access to practices and the length of time it took to hire a defensive coordinator.
"I like the man," Sharpe said after the event. "He's very straightforward, honest. He doesn't beat around the bush. He knows we have some weaknesses, and he's working to fix them."
The questions are hardly new to Dooley, who is about three weeks into his first caravan as coach of Tennessee.
"Because I haven't been out and we've had so much to do in the last four months there is some curiosity about 'who is this guy,' " Dooley said before the event. "But I think most of the fans just want to feel like the program is in good shape. There has been a little bit of 'we've been knocked on our heels' mentality."
"I hope they come away (from this) with the sense that we're going to be OK - that we've hit a little bump along the road in the great history of a program that has really defined winning and stability probably better than any other SEC program, but that we're in good shape. "
To that end, Dooley extended the question-and-answer period, ultimately taking nearly a dozen questions. His answers stayed close to the values of passion, stability and people, and former coach Lane Kiffin's name was never mentioned, either by Dooley in extended media comments before the event or by those in attendance.
"We can't pretend like (the past couple of years) didn't happen," Dooley said. "There are some things we can't quite fix right away, but . . . we're laying a good foundation to reestablish what Tennessee had. In a couple of years, I want people to look back and be proud of where we're headed."
According to alumni club officials, Tuesday's turnout represented about a 20-percent increase over the turnout for the caravan's last visit to Columbia three years ago, but they may not have to wait as long for the caravan's next visit. Dooley indicated he has initiated athletic department discussions about including Columbia and Charlotte, N.C., on the Big Orange Caravan stop on a yearly basis given the fact the Vols actively recruit both states.
Mark Lawrence is freelance contributor.