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January 8, 2013Bubba Miller paused, tried to remember when so many former Tennessee Volunteers living in the greater Nashville area had convened.
He couldn't. And certainly not because a Tennessee football coach had made the requisite effort to spearhead an event for Vols to meet and watch a game. Until new Tennessee coach Butch Jones did exactly that Monday night in downtown Nashville, reaching out and getting help from many to organize a viewing party of the BCS Championship.
"I was very impressed with him and his staff. And also I was just very touched by the fact that they reached out to so many guys in this area," said Miller, a former All-SEC offensive lineman and NFL veteran. "Seems like it's been a long time since anybody had done that. Honestly, I don't ever really remember anybody putting together an event like that to watch game."
That's what Jones and his staff, in Nashville anyway for the AFCA coaches' convention, did. It wasn't merely the Vols' new leader, hired Dec. 7, 2012, and a couple others who attended, either; UT's entire coaching staff, except for one assistant coach whose wife was ill, and several additional members of the Vols' weight room staff, support staff and more were on hand with approximately 50 former players to watch Alabama dismantle Notre Dame for the SEC's seventh-straight national crown. Numerous former players, from Mose Phillips to Eric Westmoreland to Chad Clifton to Tracy Haworth and many others, were in attendance. Brad Lampley and Carl Johnson also were key former Vols instrumental in the event.
"I think it meant a lot. It also meant a lot that he thought enough to bring his entire staff as well. He didn't bring his offensive coordinator and maybe his secondary coach. The entire staff was there," said former All-SEC wideout Joey Kent. "They were so welcoming to us as well. All of the coaches were walking up, introducing themselves and asking what years did you play. A lot of coaches knew our story. They new the years we played in and knew some of the games. It was great. We were telling them our stories and it helps them learn the tradition of Tennessee as well.
"I was talking to the offensive coordinator (Mike Bajakian) and he said he was on one of his recruiting trips and he just took a media guide with him and thumbed through all the records just to get himself familiar with the traditions of Tennessee. He said he was so impressed with all the records that have been achieved and to just put a face with a name and meet some of the guys who are in the book and have the records was great."
No area in Tennessee has surged in population comparable to the growth in the Midstate area, and the former Vols talked candidly about the need to reestablish Tennessee's presence in and around the Music City.
"It was very much needed. You have other SEC schools that have had as much or more influence on local prospects as Tennessee. That's a dangerous combination. Not only are you not getting some of those guys, but they're playing for your competition," said former Vols defensive back Buck Fitzgerald, a key role model for Nashville youth through his work with the In Full Motion program his family anchors. "Nashville, for me, is the most important area in the state. It's growing like crazy. And prospects are getting better and better. We've had national prospects the last four or five years, at least one, and next year there will be multiple big-time prospects. It's an area that's producing high-star talent."
Added Miller, "Desperately [needed this kind of event]. We've lost a lot of footing here with recruiting. We've lost a lot of the cohesiveness here amongst guys who do live in this area and this is a very integral part of the program, the Midstate is. The thing that most impressed me was the turnout. From my era on and guys who played in the '60s and '70s. A lot of guys I haven't seen in a long time who I know have not been real plugged in to Tennessee football."
Kent praised the event as opportunity to share stories with his "brothers" of Tennessee football through the decades.
"It was awesome because it was a relaxed event. The national championship game was on and to have a chance to sit down and I talked to some players who played in the '60s and '70s, to get to hear their stories and to share your stories. The coaches were very relaxed. They were coming up to players listening and introducing themselves," Kent said. "It was a good event for the coaches to reach out to us, the letterman to let us know we are a part of the program. That's one of the good things coach Jones said. He said that we are a part of the program. We built it and that he welcomes us all whether you played all four years. You played two years. It doesn't matter if you were a walk-on or you played 10 years in the NFL, you are all a part of the family. And he said he wanted us back any time we wanted to come back. He said just come. He wants that family atmosphere again at Tennessee.
"I talked to several guys (Tuesday) and they loved it. I didn't know that many guys were in and around Nashville. I know my guys who I keep in regular contact with, but to have that many people to show up and to rub elbows with guys who played 10 to 20 years before you, it was just awesome to have that camaraderie with our UT brothers."
Fitzgerald, like Miller, noted how Jones' entire staff was present and also praised the Vols' new skipper for his earnest approach.
'The get-together was really good. Coach Jones is just really down to earth and so I think that he's going to understand what needs be done and the most important thing is he's trying to gather info and ask the right questions to get things done," said the Nashville native Fitzgerald. "Especially with the assistant coaches, it's really important getting to know those guys and getting a chance to know those guys.
"Coach Jones is as genuine as any head coach I've been around."
Miller, a long-time mentor for current Vols offensive linemen Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson and James Stone, said those attributes didn't stop with the head coach after visiting with new line coach Don Mahoney.
"Coach Mahoney and I had a very nice talk," Miller said. "It appears he's going to coach the offensive line the way we're used to seeing Tennessee lines play. It's thrilling to see."