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July 12, 2012

Milligan rolling out Orange carpet for Vols

Photos: Milligan College facilities tour

ELIZABETHTON --- The first call, way back last summer, found Mark Fox on a beach in Mexico, where he was vacationing with his family.

It was the University of Tennessee and football coach Derek Dooley; the Vols, it seemed, were interested in spending a week of training camp at Fox's hamlet, Milligan College, tucked in a bucolic setting in Northeast Tennessee. There were brief talks about a desire to spend a week there in 2011; those spawned in-depth discussions about UT's belief in a need to spend a week there prior to the 2012 season.

Now, some dozen months, countless phone calls and a bevy of visits later, there is an almost palpable excitement on the 200-acre campus of the tiny Christian liberal arts school with approximately 1,200 students. The Big Orange are coming, and soon. Dooley's third squad of Vols will spend its second full week of pre-season camp, Aug. 9-16, sequestered at Milligan as they prepare for a season brimming with expectations and pressure. The Vols battle N.C. State in Atlanta Aug. 31 for their season opener.

"It's been a long, involved decision-making process for them, and a long, involved planning process for them and us," said Fox, Milligan's vice president for student development. "But the great thing about that is that we've gotten to know each other. We feel comfortable with them, and they feel comfortable with us or obviously they wouldn't have committed to coming. Now, it's just execution. There are still some details we've got to work out, but now it's just execution on game day, so to speak. But we feel prepared and ready. We've gotten a tremendous amount of support from the city of Elizabethon, the Carter County Sheriff's Department, our faculty and staff. Just a variety of people around the community up here."

Tennessee will practice on Milligan's two soccer fields and the outfield at the baseball stadium; it will dine in the Buffaloes' state-of-the-art campus cafeteria; watch film and conduct meetings inside newly renovated classrooms; hunker down with a travel party expected to swell near 200 inside the dorms.

In short, with classes not yet in session and the Buffaloes' athletics department having made arrangements for its fall squads to log some practice time at area off-campus facilities, the grounds will become UT-Milligan.

"I'm an alum of UT, so I'm eager to do whatever I can and leverage Milligan to help UT get off the season to a good start and hopefully it will," said Milligan President Dr. Bill Greer. "If they have a great year, we're going to take all the credit we can. And if they have a bad year, we'll blame something else. But we're hoping for a good year. I think a lot of people who follow UT and SEC football would not necessarily know about Milligan College, but if nothing else they're going to hear about UT coming up here for a week of camp and hopefully they'll have a good experience here.

"Hopefully this will be the kind of environment that will help them build a team spirit and camaraderie that they might not have been able to do somewhere else."

Indeed, team unity has been a repeated point of emphasis for Tennessee since it concluded the 2011 season with a loss at Kentucky. Whether it has been Dooley or strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery, the emphasis has been drawing the Vols closer together.

"The unity has been the biggest change, and it's a credit to coach Dooley and the vision he set out, along with our players really buying into that and recognizing that as an issue. So they've done a great job," said McKeefery, who while at South Florida helped spearhead an effort that had the Bulls train at the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring facility. " ... I think you're going to see in training camp a bunch of guys that love being around each other, that it's not segmented in terms of position groups or units or personal relationships. It's 105, 120 strong Tennessee Volunteers going out there that really care about each other and that have invested. Been putting money in the bank for quite some time, and they're ready to collect."

Milligan, and the surrounding communities it would seem, are ready to embrace Tennessee's presence next month, according to both Greer and Fox.

"This is Big Orange Country as well. A lot of fans here. I really can hardly go anywhere that I'm not asked about UT coming, and many of them want to know if they can come and take a look," Greer explained. "We've had to tell them they're not coming to put on a show; they're coming up here to work. Unfortunately, we can't accommodate that but they're glad to have them in town and proud of the fact that they're coming this way for a week."

Added Fox, "They love Tennessee football in the Tri-Cities, and I think sometimes people forget that occasionally in Knoxville. This has really sent a message to the people of the Tri-Cities that Tennessee could have gone other places, and they've chosen to come to Northeast Tennessee. They see value in what's going on up here."

There will be value for both sides. While the Vols use the time away from campus to help facilitate their transition into a gleaming new $42 million annex onto the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, Milligan is enhancing some things around campus while also continuing an already-scheduled multi-million dollar dorm/community expansion.

Though both Dooley and UT Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart have said they expect the Vols' week away from home to be a one-time occurrence, there is optimism at Milligan that a successful 2012 campaign on the gridiron for Tennessee could nurture the idea of a return engagement. Regardless, Fox knows Milligan's staff is intent on maximizing Tennessee's experience.

"I hope Tennessee gets the feeling of hospitality, that they feel like they were welcome and treated with respect and their needs were met," Fox said. "I hope our campus feels the same thing, that these people from Tennessee were great and they respected us and respected what we did and the way we did it. They were good to have on campus, and we want them back if they want to come back. Ultimately, I hope that's what everybody feels like.

"If they want to come back, hey, bring them on."

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