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March 8, 2013Robert Gillespie has a vivid memory of Neyland Stadium.
It was September 1998, Gillespie's freshman season at Florida, and Al Wilson was patrolling a vaunted Tennessee defense. Gillespie got one carry. He gained three yards. He came out the next play and his replacement, senior Terry Jackson, fumbled.
"That stays with me," Gillespie said during Tennessee's pre-spring practice press conference Friday. "That's something that you never forget."
The rest is history. Tennessee won 20-17 in overtime, kick-starting a run to an eventual BCS National Championship.
The Gators fumbled four times in the game and lost all four. Florida finished the season 10-2, with its only SEC loss coming in Knoxville.
"I'm a freshman and I get thrown into the game and I had a chance to make a play and on the next play I came out, the staff put in a senior and he fumbles on the next play," Gillespie continued. "I'll never forget it. When I had a chance to make a play and score, I didn't.
"Those are just things you never forget."
Gillespie may not forget about the Neyland he experienced in his playing days, but he can put it behind him.
When Butch Jones needed a running backs coach to replace Jay Graham, Gillespie, the rookie running back who missed his chance inside Neyland all those years ago, fit the bill.
"I had a checklist," Jones said Friday. "We interviewed a lot of candidates, but he was, by far, the best candidate. He had the profile we were looking for, and the profile we were looking for was that I wanted a good person.
"I want a person who has great character; that's Robert," Jones added. "I wanted a family man; that's Robert. I wanted an individual who was a great teacher; there's a difference between a great teacher and a great presenter. Robert is a great teacher."
After just a week in Knoxville, coming to Tennessee from West Virginia, Gillespie can get straight to teaching when the Vols open spring practice Saturday morning.
"These guys have done a great job coming by, spending time with me, getting to know me," Gillespie said of his new running backs, "they have been very receptive in meeting rooms."
But it's on Haslam Field over the course of 15 practices that the teacher will do just as much learning as he gets to know his stable of tail backs.
"Once we get out there on the field I'll learn some things about them," Gillespie said. "I will not truly learn everything there is to know about these guys until we put the pads on.
"You learn about who your running back is when he puts his pads on. Is he trying to get the tough yards? Is he protecting the football in traffic? I am excited to practice (Saturday), but I am really excited for days three, four, and five when the pads come on."
Gillespie has an SEC coaching pedigree to go with career as a Gator running back.
His coaching career started as a graduate assistant under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina in 2005. He coached the Gamecocks' running backs from 2006-2008 before moving on to Oklahoma State, when Graham replaced him in Columbia.
He's recruited SEC states, too. And that's where Jones went to find out more about Gillespie the recruiter after Gillespie the coach became the leading candidate to replace Graham in Knoxville.
"I called a lot of high school coaches," Jones said. "I asked them who was the best recruiter who comes to your team and your school and I kept hearing Robert Gillespie. I asked why and they told me all the characteristics I was looking for. I don't think I heard a bad thing."
Now Gillespie can sell Tennessee to prospects. And the opportunity to get into those checkerboard end zones that Al Wilson and company denied him 15 years ago.
"Obviously you never know where life is going to take you," Gillespie said. "I have always respected Tennessee. I played in some of my most competitive games against this university, so to get the opportunity to come here and coach and be apart of it is definitely amazing.
"I can't wait to get out there and coach these kids in this stadium."