The priority was clear from the moment Derek Dooley took over at Tennessee.
The Vols coach had an exact plan in mind on how to make it happen as well.
But specifically finding a way to gauge his ongoing effort to change the culture at UT isn’t quite as easy for Dooley as he heads into his second season with the program.
There are no statistics to track the character of his players or polls that reflect the value of community service, but that doesn’t mean Dooley hasn’t been able to see some progress over his 15 months at UT. It just is hard to prove numerically.
“Well, how do you measure it, that’s a really good question,” Dooley said earlier this month. “I think you can’t really quantify it, but there’s always events that give you an indication of where you are culture-wise. I think we are light years ahead of where we were a year ago — I know we are.
“Ultimately it’s hard for your culture to fully change until the guys that you went out and sold your program to, who believe in everything you believe, come in and they cycle through the program. I think you’re constantly in any company, you’re most concerned about your culture.”
Dooley recognized that right away with the Vols and put cleaning up their image at the top of his to-do list a year ago, instituting the Vol for Life program for educational purposes, adopting a hard line on discipline and spending a great deal of time getting to know recruits to avoid potentially risky situations down the road.
There were still some numbers that Dooley can’t avoid during his season at the helm, with a handful of off-the-field incidents popping up throughout the year. And while that hasn’t been uncommon at UT or even around the SEC East at schools like Georgia and Florida and in some respects might be unavoidable at times, having four significant incidents throughout the year is still a number Dooley would prefer to lower — or eliminate entirely.
“I think in any football program, and really in any athletics program, with the scrutiny and the exposure and the number of players and the socioeconomic backgrounds and all these factors jumbled in — you’re dealing with young people,” he said. “You’re going to have incidents. I don’t think you will ever not have incidents, just like you go on any college campus, there are incidents.
“But when those incidents become part of what you are and who you are, that’s when it’s a concern. I felt like that was the case when I got here.”
That wasn’t a problem which could be fixed overnight after Dooley arrived, and he has obviously had a few issues to address early in his UT career.
Darren Myles provided the first discipline test with an arrest in the hours after Dooley’s first Orange and White Game, then tried him again for his role in the Bar Knoxville brawl — an event that initially produced an arrest for Myles and receiver Da’Rick Rogers before the majority of charges were dismissed.
Myles was kicked off the team for his second run-in anyway, linebacker Greg King and defensive lineman Marlon Walls were both suspended in the fallout and Rogers faced some internal punishment.
Jacques Smith was arrested during the season after returning from a road loss at South Carolina on charges of simple assault for another bar fight. The freshman pleaded guilty, received judicial diversion and didn’t miss any playing time.
During the offseason, safety Brent Brewer added another arrest to the UT record after a domestic dispute in February which earned a five-week suspension from team activities by Dooley before the charges were reduced to offensive touching, which also came with judicial diversion.
But those four brushes with the law under Dooley’s watch aren’t enough to convince him there hasn’t been headway.
“I didn’t view those as setbacks,” Dooley said. “I don’t feel like that’s the case with either of those scenarios (with Smith and Brewer). Both of them were extremely remorseful, both of them handled it as well as any young person could handle it after it happened. Both of them have forged ahead and not only had a tremendous attitude about it, but they’re doing great in school and performing very well on the football field.
“In some ways, I view that as a good test case for where you are, and I feel like it showed we’re making a lot of progress.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.