A black bear turned heads when it wandered onto the University of Tennessee campus last weekend. But high atop the Smoky Mountains, a massive hiking expedition probably was more startling to anyone on the same trail.
This is East Tennessee, where the encroachment of bears into human territory no longer falls into the "Oh my God" category. Half a football team ascending Mount LeConte en masse is less common.
Up they went last Saturday morning — coach Derek Dooley and about 35 players — to the wonderment of all the non-celebrity weekend hikers, some of whom occasionally turned the nature venture into an autograph session.
"We saw a ton of (fans)," Dooley said. "I think they were stunned at the herd of football players rolling past them."
The climb of over 6,000 feet wasn't for publicity. The Vols didn't even promote it beforehand. They just did it.
And nobody came up short. Not even the 300-pounders. The super-heavyweights included linemen Dallas Thomas, Antonio Richardson and Darrington Sentimore.
"I was really proud of them," Dooley said.
"Some guys just annihilated it," he added, singling out cornerback Marsalis Teague and linebackers Herman Lathers and A.J. Johnson.
But this wasn't just a scenic addition to UT's off-season conditioning program. It was more about building a team than scaling a mountain.
Among the participants were the 18 members of the team's unity council. Each one was allowed to invite another player.
"We've done a lot of things (to improve) leadership and team chemistry," Dooley said. "But that was only part of it. Some of these guys had never been on a hike. So it was a good life experience."
It also qualified as a not-so-subtle metaphor for a program attempting to climb its way from the bottom of the SEC East after a 5-7 2011 season. If last year's misadventure had been attributed solely to the team's talent void, Dooley's creative off-season itinerary might have little bearing on the season to come. Yet last year's failure was more complicated than that.
You saw how the Vols unraveled in a 49-7 loss to Arkansas. You heard how they cited "individual agendas" as a divisive factor following an inexplicable, season-ending loss to Kentucky. Maybe they weren't Team Turmoil. But they weren't a band of happy hikers, either.
If you hold the head coach accountable for a family somewhat divided, then you also should credit him for taking novel approaches to bring it together. And don't forget how much ground he had to cover in his first two challenging seasons when building a program superseded team building.
"It was something we wanted to put more energy into — team building and chemistry," Dooley said.
The hiking phase of the process took about two hours going up. The coach and players also took time to relax and eat as they looked out from the cliffs. Along the way, the novice hikers gained an appreciation for appropriate footwear.
"They made fun of me because I had my hiking shoes on," Dooley said. "Then, they were saying 'I got to get a pair like that.' "
A "good full day," Dooley called it. But now isn't the time for telling how good the hike or all the off-season team building might be.
"We won't know till next fall," Dooley said.