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Derek Dooley walks the walk

Illustration by MASA

Derek Dooley couldn't see his father. But he knew he was there, and that's all that mattered.

On Sept. 4, Tennessee's new head coach led his first Vol Walk, the team's traditional game-day stroll through the heart of campus. His old man, Vince, marched with him in support, though he lingered at the back trying to blend in behind the jackets and ties of his son's new players. He wore a carefully selected ensemble of brown pants and plain white shirt -- no orange. The legendary former Georgia coach, leader of the last Dawgs national title team 30 years ago, was uncomfortable.

"That's not what you'd call his natural habitat," Derek says with a laugh. "But I can't imagine what that day would've been like without him."

It was a remarkable show of support, but it also showed the weakening of school and blood bonds in the nation's most rivalry-strewn conference. And it was only the beginning in a season of turncoat matches in the SEC. On Oct. 9, Dooley takes UT to Athens, where he was a prep football star and where buildings bear his family name. That day, he will be booed unmercifully. Just like Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen on Oct. 16, when the ex-Florida O-coordinator goes to Gainesville for the first time as an enemy. And former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt on his Oct. 23 trip to Fayetteville, where he played for Frank Broyles and coached for a decade. LSU and UF fans won't be offering group hugs when Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier bring their teams to town in November. Yet, as Vince Dooley says, "It's not as bad as it used to be."

He would know. In 1964 he bolted Auburn, where he played quarterback and later coached, for Georgia. After his retirement in '89, Dooley returned to Jordan-Hare Stadium to accept an alumni award. He gave the crowd a "War Eagle!" cry. The response: 80,000 boos.

Flash forward again to Volunteer Boulevard, where no one booed, or even noticed, as Vince trudged through the herd. But when Derek stopped the march for a pep talk at the foot of the campus's centerpiece statue, the Dawg legend was outed. "Hey, Vince!" yelled a very large man in checkerboard overalls, holding up his camera. "How 'bout a picture in front of The Torchbearer?" When Dooley didn't respond, the Big Orange yeller kept trying. "C'mon, Vince! One picture!"

As Derek broke the huddle and marched down Peyton Manning Pass to Neyland Stadium, Vince finally turned to acknowledge his suitor. He smiled and spoke in a tone that could only be heard by the man and his friends.

"No thanks. Go Dawgs."