On a particularly busy afternoon before Christmas, Tennessee's football offices have the feel of a futuristic telemarketing center.
Coaches and administrators pace the hallways past glass-walled offices, cell phones to their ears. A steady stream of visitors enter and then leave Butch Jones password-protected office suite by punching numbers into a keypad.
Any phone call from a recruit is a reason to interrupt the new coach, particularly during an NCAA dead period, when coaches get only one call a week to prospects, but recruits can call anytime.
Amid this hive of activity, Jones and his new staff have focused on the future, and especially the 2013 recruiting class that must be salvaged in the next five weeks leading up to National Signing Day on Feb. 6.
"You win with players," Jones said. "We have to go out and bring in high-caliber players."
New coaches don't like to dwell on the past, and their arrival promises a fresh start for Tennessee players who have endured three consecutive losing seasons. But as the calendar turns over to 2013, it's worth reviewing the tumultuous final season of former coach Derek Dooley.
The year that started with so much optimism may offer lessons for the new staff as it tries to reverse one of the worst stretches in modern Tennessee football history.
An offseason of change
Tennessee entered Dooley's third season at the helm with new assistant coaches at seven of nine positions. Only offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and assistant Darin Hinshaw, who shifted from quarterbacks to receivers, returned from the 2011 squad that went 5-7 and ended the year with an embarrassing loss at Kentucky.
Some of the coaches were nudged aside. But many others sought safer opportunities elsewhere, knowing the Dooley regime was entering a critical — and possibly final — third year.
In retrospect, none of the losses was bigger than defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who left for Washington after presiding over a defense ranked 28th in the country in 2011.
For his replacement, Dooley turned to Sal Sunseri, an Alabama assistant whose hiring was widely regarded as a coup. To lure Sunseri from a stable post with Nick Saban, Tennessee offered a three-year, $2.4 million contract.
Sunseri would last only one season, and his defense would be among the worst in the nation and perhaps the worst in Tennessee history.
An optimistic August
Despite all the offseason changes, it was difficult to sense much concern in August. In fact, there was a sense that after two years of taking its lumps under Dooley, the Vols were finally ready to return to the top of the SEC in 2012.
Much of the excitement was focused on the offense, which had struggled a year earlier after injuries to quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter.
But now Bray and Hunter were healthy. With talented but mercurial receiver Da'Rick Rogers and new junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson also on the roster, many believed the Tennessee offense had four potential first-round picks leading the offense.
The only question was whether that explosive passing game could be complemented by an improved offensive line and rushing attack. But those units seemed to be making progress under new coaches Sam Pittman and Jay Graham.
Even Dooley, known as a difficult coach for which to work, was mellowing a bit during the August camp. He seemed to be enjoying the new faces on his rebuilt staff, a mixture of young coaches like defensive assistants Derrick Ansley and Josh Conklin and salty veterans like line coaches Pittman and John Palermo.
As the team trekked to small-town Milligan College for a week of practices that doubled as a team-bonding experience, it was impossible to ignore the positive vibes flowing from Camp Dooley.
Then the first cracks started to appear.
Key loss, followed by a big win
By now the Da'Rick Rogers rumor mill had a familiar refrain: Rogers misses practice. Rumors swirl. Dooley puts them to rest.
Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright Â© 2012 // Buy this photo
Only on this morning, one week before the start of the 2012 season, Dooley had no good news to offer. The junior receiver was gone and he was not coming back.
"There's not one player on the team that we're not prepared to go play without," Dooley said.
It may have been for the best that there was no time to dwell on Rogers' departure or worry about what his absence would do to the offense before the season opener against North Carolina State in the Chick-fil-A Classic at the Georgia Dome.
The N.C. State game proved the loss of Rogers might not be as dramatic as some feared. The Vols won 35-21, an important win made even more impressive by the way in which UT won it.
Bray was nearly flawless. Hunter caught nine passes. Senior receiver Zach Rogers caught a 72-yard touchdown pass. Patterson burst onto the scene with 165 total yards and two touchdowns.
Even Sunseri's revamped 3-4 defense showed promise. The Vols had four interceptions against veteran quarterback Mike Glennon. The aggressiveness Sunseri had tried to instill in his team seemed to be paying off.
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After the game, stadium workers quickly roped off a section of midfield and players mounted a makeshift stage for the trophy presentation. One of the players took the trophy — a replica leather helmet — and placed it on Dooley's head as confetti rained down from the Dome ceiling.
Amid the celebration, Dooley repeatedly sounded a note of caution.
"It's really early," Dooley said. "I definitely feel like I have a better handle, but we really don't know much about this team."
Is Tennessee back?
With the benefit of three months of hindsight, the hoopla that surrounded Tennessee's game against Florida in Week 3 at Neyland Stadium may seem silly. But at the time, there was genuine excitement that perhaps Tennessee was at a turning point.
And maybe the Vols were. But the program didn't turn in the direction that anyone had hoped.
After beating Georgia State to improve to 2-0, Tennessee climbed into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2008. A few moments after the poll was released, ESPN confirmed that College GameDay was coming to Knoxville for the first time since 2004. With Georgia and South Carolina off to shaky starts, some believed that the Florida-Tennessee winner would be in the driver's seat for the SEC East.
For nearly three quarters, the game lived up to the hype. But in the final 20 minutes, the Vols' offense wilted and the defense allowed the sort of big plays that would characterize the entire season.
After the game, Dooley was asked pointedly whether the Vols were able to match Florida in talent.
"We thought we could go toe-to-toe with them for four quarters, yes," Dooley replied.
That answer became more pertinent as the season wore on. Florida kept winning, finishing the season third in the BCS standings. Meanwhile, Tennessee's losing had just begun.
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The second season
The bad luck that had plagued Dooley in SEC games during his first two seasons continued through 2012. In three of the next four conference games after the Florida loss, Tennessee was in a position to win or tie in the fourth quarter. (Only the loss to then-No. 1 Alabama was lopsided). The Vols went 0-4 during the stretch.
After a particularly devastating loss at then-No. 13 South Carolina on Oct. 27, Dooley declared the final four games of 2012 as a sort of "second season."
Some fans disliked the phrase, but it carried a ring of truth. The final games — all quite winnable — would be a referendum on Dooley's future and determine whether the Vols would qualify for a bowl game.
The first game of the second season was nearly a disaster. The Vols outlasted Troy 55-48, but were outgained by the Trojans 721 to 718, the most yards of combined offense ever in a Tennessee football game.
The next game had fewer yards but a similar script. Missouri rallied from a halftime deficit to beat the Vols 51-48 in four overtimes.
The final act of the Dooley era came a week later, a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt that was likely the low point of a season in which there were many.
A few hours later, early on Nov. 18, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart met with Dooley to tell him the news he had already likely accepted. He would not be back for a fourth year at Tennessee.
"He handled it as you would expect," Hart said. "He handled it in a mature, respectful and appreciative manner."
The team Jones inherits
Did Dooley leave the program in better shape than he inherited it when Lane Kiffin left abruptly after one season in January 2010? Hart believes he did.
"He inherited a very, difficult environment," Hart said. "Quite honestly, he was given a pretty short stick to take into that battle. Given those facts, he did a good job in a lot of areas in putting a solid foundation under our football program."
If Bray, Hunter and Patterson had opted to return for their senior seasons, the offense alone would be reason for significant optimism entering 2013. As it stands, the roster offers some reasons to be hopeful and other reasons for serious concern.
On offense, an experienced offensive line and a revitalized running game should help the new quarterback and a very young receiving corps ease into SEC play.
Defensively, there's nowhere go but up. The linebackers didn't live up to their promise in 2012 and the secondary will get a chance at a fresh start after being haunted by big plays. The biggest chance for improvement might be at coordinator. Sunseri was the wrong coach at the wrong time for Tennessee. New defensive coordinator John Jancek will return to the 4-3 and promises to be more pragmatic in fitting the defense to the Vols' personnel.
The roster is relatively balanced, and the healthy size of the senior class — 24 players, barring offseason attrition — is a credit to Dooley's stewardship.
Even with the high-profile departures, many talented players remain.
The bulk of the roster — 37 players — were either in the 2010 class that was ranked ninth nationally by Rivals or the 2011 class that was 14th nationally in the 247 Sports Composite index. Twenty players on the roster were consensus four-star selections, according to the 247 Composite, while one player (offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James) was a five-star.
But while the roster does have some veterans, a surprising number have contributed little during their career. Only five players have started 20 or more games; only 16 have started at least 10.
Beyond the lack of experience, virtually every position has potential depth issues. Even those spots without an urgent need could be vulnerable to injuries.
Looking ahead with a new coach
If that seems like a gloomy outlook for 2013, consider that the schedule Jones will face in Year 1 includes back-to-back road games against Oregon and Florida. After a non-conference breather, the Vols play Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive weeks.
But in his first weeks on the job, Jones has combated that gloom with optimism and energy.
"The Gatorade of coaches," Jones joked as he took a swig of yet another cup of coffee during a long day at the office early in December.
Jones has described his plan that worked at previous stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as "infallible." When asked if that seemed overly confident, even boastful, Jones had a ready answer.
"You forgot the second part of that quote. The plan is infallible if the players buy in," he said.
Players will begin trickling back from Christmas break later this week. The new semester starts Jan. 9. The buy-in process is about to get under way.