Opening comments from Coach Derek Dooley on National Signing Day
Signing day celebration at Neyland Stadium
Reminders aren't necessary, but they're everywhere.
In the weight room, it's fuel for a returning roster of players who didn't get to make a bowl trip.
On the recruiting trail, it required answers as other schools turned a season that ended in disappointment into a doubt-inducing weapon against Tennessee.
Upstairs in the coaching offices, the six new faces that have moved in the past two months provide another example that college football is a business — and the Vols weren't a thriving one a year ago.
That was all summed up neatly on one November afternoon in Kentucky as a 26-year run of dominance and Derek Dooley's second season leading UT came to an unexpected end.
And while those other reminders might fade with time, there's a chance the memory of that 10-7 loss to the Wildcats never will for Dooley.
"That game will bother me for the rest of my life," Dooley said Thursday during an end of the season meeting with the News Sentinel. "It eats me alive. I didn't sleep for a week after that game.
"I'm not sure how long I will go in time without thinking about that game at some point in the day."
The trick for Dooley now, though, is turning those thoughts into something positive as the foundation is set for his third year with the Vols.
He could make excuses, both for the loss at Kentucky or the entire season. And given the youth he had to work with, the critical injuries that ravaged what once appeared to be an explosive offense and the brutal schedule UT faced, perhaps that could provide an easy way to rationalize a 5-7 record and allow him to move on more easily.
But starting with a well-documented, post-game press conference in a barren room at Commonwealth Stadium in which
Dooley first referenced the possible benefits of missing a bowl game, he's focused his energy on identifying everything that went wrong, searching for answers to fix the issues — and then wasting no time acting on them.
That meant evaluating his assistants, for starters. And while losing six of them might have been something of a surprise, even had the Vols ended the regular season with a win, Dooley recently indicated "a significant amount of change" would have come anyway.
Given the rift that became painfully clear during the finger-pointing from the upperclassmen to the younger Vols after the loss, a plan to promote more teamwork and leadership was formulated in December and implemented into workouts and off-the-field functions like video-game tournaments.
And while doing both of those things, Dooley, the holdovers on his staff and the new guys also had to fend off the bullets UT had personally supplied in guns around the SEC during the closing recruiting stretch.
Obviously there wasn't much time in there for the Vols to feel sorry about themselves.
"I believe this in my heart — going through that will make us better for next year," Dooley said. "I do, I believe that in my heart. Did it hurt us in December? Of course it did. Did it hurt us to the point where we can't overcome? Absolutely not. I think it's going to make us better.
"I watch those workouts out there, I don't believe that team would be in the place they're in right now had we beaten Kentucky. I don't believe it, because they're in a different place right now. And I'm in a different place as a coach. That game has allowed us to sharpen our focus. It's allowed us to not live in an illusion that everything is great, which it wasn't. That's why I said what I said, that we needed this to happen."
Needing something that might prompt change shouldn't be confused with wanting to lose at Kentucky, which Dooley made clear as he relived the memory yet again while sitting in a chair in his office one day after finishing off his latest signing class.
But there's nothing UT can do about how its arrived in its current situation. All it can do is get to work on improving it.
"That game, when I say we needed that to happen to make us better, people assume that I wanted it to happen," Dooley said. "And people assume that I didn't care that it happened, and that's not the case. But if I just sit there and sulk over that game, the whole organization won't go forward."
"I've looked back enough and I have a good sense of where we were, where we are and what we need to do to get it right — so it never happens again."