On a cool April evening, Allison Dooley heads down the stairs behind her house.
The backyard doesn’t look quite the same as usual, with the basketball court covered by a tent filled with tables decorated orange and white, the pool deck converted to a small stage and dance floor for a live band — and a large number of guests milling around with cocktails.
But for two hours, it’s nothing but handshakes and conversation, smiles and photographs as she makes her way through the crowd as a co-headliner of the charity event.
Of course, much of her celebrity status might be owed to the guy by her side, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley. But no matter how she might have come by it, both of the Dooleys are determined to parlay their recently acquired and expanding fame into something much larger.
And like her husband on the field after a year on the job with the Vols, Allison Dooley is finding her stride 15 months after Knoxville became home for her as well.
“It’s a different scale here,” she said after hosting the Big Orange Experience to benefit Variety — The Children’s Charity. “And I think first you just have to get your family settled and your kids settled. Once they’re kind of settled and we were kind of moved in and unpacked, feel home, then you can turn your attention to all of this.
“We didn’t move in here to the house until May of last year, so we kind of had summer and the football season, so really starting in January was when you could start to feel more settled.”
Family matters obviously come first, but in some ways, getting comfortable in Tennessee might have made 2010 Year Zero for Allison — to borrow a phrase Derek coined to describe the adjustment period with the Vols a year ago.
But by now she’s getting used to the attention that comes with her husband’s job, the sight of his picture popping up in stores while the family runs errands and the fact she’s almost as likely to be identified in public as Derek.
Along with all that, Allison also is realizing how that popularity can be channeled elsewhere, starting with the fundraiser at the house and including a local board position with the Susan G. Komen foundation and a role with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
“For me, personally, I used to work full-time, so professionally I used to get that fill outside of the house, and right now I’m not working,” Allison, an OB/GYN physician, said. “So I think a big part of it is just how you feel about what you’ve done during the day, what you’ve accomplished or who you’ve touched. In medicine, you can cure some things but some things you can’t, but if you listed and you talk, you can make an impact even if you can’t fix the problem.
“I think some of that carries over into this sort of work with a charity or a cause you believe in, something you love. You get that fulfillment or that gratification that I would have at work.”
But she’s also not giving back just to fill out her schedule, and both Dooleys have talked about the responsibility they feel comes with being in their position.
And now that the house is neatly in order, the backyard is a fine place to start.
“We’re in a position where we can make a difference, where we can help raise money for something we believe in and hopefully have a positive impact or be a positive role model,” Allison said. “Any way you can fit to help in the community, I think it’s that way here for us.
“It’s not necessarily a duty, but it’s certainly when you have that ability based on a position, to make a difference, I think you should.”
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