HOOVER, Ala. — Team Tennessee rarely has looked so in sync in the off-season. In fact, its attire for SEC Football Media Days was almost as uniform as on game day.
The three seniors — Tauren Poole, Malik Jackson and Dallas Thomas — weren't just dressed like each other. They were dressed like their head coach: black suit, orange tie and a Power T on the lapel.
Thursday's dress might have appeared orchestrated, if not mandated. But this display of team unity actually was achieved independently.
Thomas laughed with surprise when told during a News Sentinel Sports Page radio interview that he was dressed no differently from head coach Derek Dooley. He laughed again when the coach — dressed almost identically — took his place at the microphone.
"I guess Coach Dooley is influencing us," Thomas said later.
The influence qualifies as progress for a team handed down from one coach to another for three consecutive years.
Dooley's hands-on approach to college football doesn't extend to dressing his players in similar fashion. Yet he expects adherence to certain standards when they represent the program.
"He wants us to be professional, to carry ourselves with pride," Thomas said.
For their media-day plunge, the threesome dressed as professionally as corporate executives.
That doesn't mean the team will win the SEC East or even win more games than the six it did in Dooley's first season at UT. It does mean the players are no longer stumbling around in the dark, learning on the run what's expected from their latest leader. There's continuity as well as comfort with a program that has had little of either for several years.
"We know what Coach Dooley wants," Thomas said.
Consider that a small step forward. But, as Dooley would emphasize, don't trivialize the significance of small steps.
"I believe everything matters," Dooley said. "The failure of a program is never because of just one thing. It's a cumulative effect of little things and bad decisions."
It's hardly a revolutionary concept, but Dooley can articulate it with conviction and without the preachy intonation of someone who has climbed onto a platform high above his audience.
He hasn't changed from his first SEC media venture. The perception of him has changed.
He's no longer known so much as the coach who got the Tennessee job despite a losing record at Louisiana Tech. He's known as the most articulate coach in the league, as reconfirmed by his most recent turn at the podium.
UT and non-UT fans alike seem to like the guy. A common assessment — one that I've heard several times in the last two days from a Tennessee fan, an Auburn fan and a media-type — goes something like this: "I think he's really a sharp guy. I hope they give him enough time."
The obvious question hanging over the program: How much time will it take to turn the Vols from also-rans into contenders?
Dooley can't answer that. How could he? This isn't just about UT. It's about the competition.
"It's a tough neighborhood," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "Every school in this conference is committed to improving their football program."
More improvement will be necessary in training camp when the Vols come together as a team and take the next step toward rebuilding their program. They could only talk about improvement at media days.
But they at least looked like a team while they were doing it.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http//twitter.com/johnadamskns