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February 22, 2009
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - It almost sounded as if new Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza was channeling cartoon icon Bugs Bunny when he spoke of diverting his moving truck from Albuquerque, N.M., to Knoxville.
A former Texas Longhorns defensive back who had previous coaching stops at TCU and running Monte Kiffin's "Tampa 2" defense at North Dakota State, Garza hadn't gotten settled in with first-year New Mexico coach Mike Locksley when another opportunity presented itself: joining the Vols' staff. Garza had even previously interviewed with the elder Kiffin for a spot on his defensive staff with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few years ago, and Garza had stayed in contact.
"Some people look at it and see it as a whirlwind, but in this profession, things happen like that," said Garza, among the final pieces of coach Lane Kiffin's inaugural Tennessee staff. "But I had left North Dakota State and was headed to New Mexico. I was there for about seven or eight days. The biggest thing was the moving truck. The moving truck was on its way to Albuquerque, and I had to tell it to turn around and head to Knoxville. But it wasn't too bad. A little hectic, but not too bad."
The frenzied pace reached its crescendo during the American Football Coaches Association convention last month in Nashville, Tenn. Already some 1,200 miles east of Albuquerque, Garza journeyed another couple hundred miles to Knoxville.
"Right during the convention, I came to Knoxville and I always kept Coach Locksley informed with what was going on with the situation. During the convention, I came straight from the convention to Knoxville so it was probably about a week before I even got back to New Mexico to get my stuff," he said. "I was kind of a nomad to a certain extent. But it was a good experience, it all worked out and now I'm at a great place like the University of Tennessee. Great people, a great environment, great players and great coaches. I'm looking forward to the opportunity."
Garza said it didn't hurt that he would have the opportunity to mentor Vols All-America safety Eric Berry, whose electric skill set could allow him to eventually make a Heisman Trophy run.
"It's always rewarding for a football coach when you have a great talent, a great person like Eric Berry who has experience, great leadership skills," Garza said, "and I'm excited to coach a special talent like that."
Relying on his playing career in the defensive backfield as well as his knowledge running Kiffin's defense, Garza expects to bring several attributes to the Vols' staff.
"I think having played defensive back at the University of Texas and having started there for four years, I have a defensive back's mentality and have coached, in my opinion, at some pretty good universities and we've had a lot of success at those universities that I've been at," Garza said. "Then having coached in the 'Tampa 2' package for four years, I know the 'Tampa 2' package that Monte Kiffin has made a staple as him being a defensive coordinator.
"I think I do a good job establishing a rapport with my players, being able to communicate with them, listen to them and get them to play hard out on the football field."
Garza is meeting with his players as much as possible and says they all deliver a consistent message.
"They just say the fans are fanatical and they love being here, it's a great place to play college football," he said. "The history and tradition speaks for itself, and they know what it takes to play great defense."
During a couple of recruiting weekends at Tennessee basketball games, Garza glimpsed the enthusiasm and hunger of Vols' fans as coaches, recruits and Berry all received thunderous ovations.
"That just speaks volumes about how fanatical the fans are here for football," Garza said. "At a basketball game, with probably 22,000 people there, it gets louder when they see Eric Berry than probably any other play during the game. It's unbelievable, and you want to be a part of that."
Even if it meant taking the long way from Albuquerque to Knoxville.