The Tennessee standard

Tennessee's current football players were still in elementary school when the Vols won Southeastern Conference and national championships in 1998.

So, with the Big Orange struggling along at 18-20 over the past three seasons, many of the players may have forgotten that the Big Orange has a rich tradition of excellence that can be traced to Robert R. Neyland's arrival on campus in the 1920s.

Head coach Derek Dooley figures it's time they were reminded. Fans expect better than last season's 6-7 record, and the Vols need to expect better, too.

"There's a standard at Tennessee that's always been there, and we lost that standard, so I thought it was very important when we turned that page after last season to redefine the standard of excellence that Tennessee has had for so long," Dooley said recently. "You're never going to get there if you don't at least start establishing a standard."

Even the NCAA's premier programs endure down cycles like the one Tennessee is experiencing now. The elite programs - Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska - don't stay down for long, however, and Dooley is determined that his program won't stay down for long, either. He is reminding his players at every opportunity that the Vol Nation expects greatness but hasn't been getting it the past few seasons.

"I remember one of the offseason workouts where I was really upset with them," Dooley recalled. "I explained to them what the expectation is at Tennessee. The fans expect us to go out there and compete for a championship and compete for one of those banners, and we need to work like that."

This probably won't be the year Tennessee returns to its accustomed spot in the national top 25, however. Seventy percent of the Vol roster will be freshmen and sophomores. Still, Dooley is determined that his team not use its inexperience as an excuse for failure. He first made this clear at the start of spring practice.

"I told ‘em: We can do this one of two ways," the coach recalled. "I can coach you like a freshman and I'll kind of coddle you along. You'll probably have to play, and you'll go out and embarrass yourself, but you might like me a little bit better.

"Or I can coach you like an upperclassman and put some expectations on you that most freshmen don't have. It's going to be a little hard on you but it might make you a little bit better and give you a little bit better chance to succeed on the field. So, you guys tell me what you want. I'm going to do whatever you want me to do. We can agree that we're young and that's an excuse and it's OK to fail. Or we're not going to make that an excuse."

The response, Dooley noted, "was pretty much unanimous." The Vols say they want to be pushed harder so they can contend sooner. They now remember that Tennessee does not settle for mediocrity.

The fans, of course, never forgot.

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