Tennessee fans start lining up early to get autographs during the Big Orange Caravan stop at Kingsport's Farmers Market. (Ned Jilton II photo)
KINGSPORT — The Big Orange Caravan made its yearly stop in the Tri-Cities on Monday evening with coaches Butch Jones, Cuonzo Martin and Holly Warlick meeting and greeting local alumni and other Vol faithful.
Upon taking over as UT’s football coach, Jones realized the task ahead of him. Losing seasons, shrinking attendance and a drop in recruiting were not part of the normal Volunteer vocabulary. Five months into the job, he is rebuilding “brick by brick” and instilling a renewed energy in the program.
“It’s nights like this that you are reminded of the magnitude of Tennessee football,” Jones said. “We talk about a high level of consistency in our program and we have been getting the same level from these stops we’ve made.
“It energizes me to feel the passion and energy that this great fan base has.”
Jones’ “brick-by-brick” concept has fans bringing orange colored bricks to be autographed.
His recruiting resurgence includes the signing of Dobyns-Bennett teammates Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford.
They join Mack Crowder and Brendan Downs, who are entering their third year at UT after graduating from Tennessee High.
“Players like these mean so much and the many things that go into our program. We want individuals who understand our tradition as well as what they are representing,” Jones said. “We want them to understand this on the field as well as off. I thought this was indicative of the fact we had 46 individuals with grade points over 3.0 this past semester.”
Warlick had the task of following a legend, Pat Summitt. After losing to Chattanooga in her very first game last season, Warlick felt the weight of the job increase immensely.
Summitt reportedly pulled her aside and let her know that the Hall of Famer — who soon will have a statue in her honor erected on campus — lost her first game as a head coach, too.
“What a great honor for Pat. I think she is an icon for the University of Tennessee, not just with women’s sports, but the entire university,” Warlick said.
After leading the Lady Vols to the NCAA Elite Eight, she gets the opportunity to be with Summitt one more year.
Summitt recently signed a one-year extension in her role as head coach emeritus and will continue serving the program in a variety of supportive roles.
“She was in one of our meetings today and I just love her energy,” Warlick said. “Her being around has been nothing but a positive for myself, the staff, and the players.”
Martin is still putting the finishing touches on the 2013-14 men’s basketball schedule, though the athletic department recently agreed in principle to a four-year renewal of the series with Memphis. The Tigers won in Knoxville in January in what looked to be their last meeting.
While Memphis coach Josh Paustner is on record as being against continuing the series, Martin feels the opposite.
“I look forward to it. I think it will be great for all the fans and the state of Tennessee. Hopefully we can get it settled,” Martin said.
The Big Orange Caravan is in the middle of its five-city tour. Following stops in Memphis and Chattanooga earlier in the month, it moves on to Atlanta on Tuesday and into Nashville on Thursday.