Tennessee football players began contact drills Saturday. And a balancing act began, as well.
You have to be tough to succeed in college football. You also have to be healthy.
So every football coach has to evaluate the risk of hitting too much or too little at this time of year.
The risks are magnified when you are rebuilding a program as Derek Dooley and his staff are in their second year at UT. You were reminded of that Friday when the Vols announced that preseason All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson would miss two weeks of practice with a sprained right knee.
That's manageable in preseason. But imagine if the same injury would occur in October when the Vols must play Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina in succession without an open date.
Football can be a treacherous game even when players aren't colliding at full speed. The danger is exacerbated when the dial is turned to full contact.
Dooley has made it clear that while not oblivious to the game's hazards, he's committed to fielding a tough, physical team. He confirmed that in his preseason media conference last week when he pointed out that the game has been softened at the high school level to the extent that teaching such football basics as blocking and tackling have become more paramount in college. They can't be taught strictly with an instructional video. Hitting is required.
The old-school approach to football conveyed the message: tough teams win; tougher teams win more. As you might remember, Bear Bryant subscribed to that philosophy. If you don't remember, read "The Junction Boys" by Jim Dent, who described Bryant's infamous 10-day training camp in 1954 before his first season as head coach at Texas A&M.
The program needed toughening up, Bryant decided. So the team was transported to the small town of Junction, Texas, which was in the midst of a drought. Temperatures soared and players fell by the wayside. What was left of the team went 1-9.
But the Aggies' next team won seven games. And the 1956 team went 9-0-1 and won the Southwest Conference championship.
Coach Charlie Bradshaw must have been taking notes. He might have picked up a few more tips when he played under Bryant at Kentucky, then later served as an assistant coach on Bryant's Alabama staff.
If Bryant was old school, Bradshaw was medieval. The "thin thirty" can vouch for that. They comprised what was left of Bradshaw's first team at Kentucky in 1962. They, too, became the subject of a book, "The Thin Thirty," in which author Shannon Ragland chronicled the attrition of a team that went from 88 to 30 players in a year.
Howard Dunnebacke of Oak Ridge can give you a firsthand account of how it began. Dunnebacke, who started for Kentucky as a 170-pound fullback, survived the 1962 season as a fourth-year junior but didn't return for what would have been his senior season.
"I guess the thing that best summed up (the 1962 season) was one of the reviews of the book," said Dunnebacke, who graduated from Kentucky in engineering and is now retired in Oak Ridge after spending much of his career in Austin, Texas.
Dunnebacke said the reviewer referred to the twofold philosophy of Bryant and Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi in which you first "tore down players completely; then, second, built them back up. But what if you overdo one and ignore two altogether?"
Players were abused verbally and physically under Bradshaw, the program eventually went on NCAA probation, and there was another off-the field scandal before the Bradshaw era ended after the 1968 season. The final accounting wasn't exactly Bryant-like: 25 wins, 41 losses and 4 ties.
Bradshaw's players might have been the toughest guys east of Junction, Texas, but there weren't enough of them. He obviously didn't grasp the significance of balancing hitting with health.
UT defensive backs coach Terry Joseph emphasizes that his boss is keenly aware of the issue.
"Coach Dooley truly believes that the system we have will not only develop toughness but also develop a proper technique and will give your body enough rest to recover and be strong throughout the season," said Joseph, who is beginning his fifth season as an assistant coach under Dooley. "Obviously, we've got a few guy that if we lose them, it's going to be an issue. We've got to be smart about how we schedule the practices.
"But again, you can't go into every practice worrying about somebody getting injured. We'll practice the way we always do and stress toughness."
And the balancing act will continue.