By KEVIN WEAKS
It was a part of Tennessee history that everybody in Big Orange Nation would like to forget.
Chris Walker was in the eye of the storm, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The former defensive end for the Volunteers — from 2007 through 2010 — was on the front lines when Phillip Fulmer was fired, when Lane Kiffin came and went in a flash and when Derek Dooley was brought in to stabilize the program but instead began the worst three-year stretch in a century.
A senior-to-be when Dooley took over in 2010, Walker had the option to transfer. Classmates could have done the same or taken their shot at the professional ranks.
Walker and many of those teammates chose to stick it out and be leaders for the younger players.
“One (coaching change) was already enough, but another was really tough, especially since it was my senior year,” Walker said. “But, I was put in a very awesome situation to be a leader. And, we knew we had to be leaders to hold it together. Me, Nick Reveiz, Luke Stocker, Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones. We knew we had to keep that program together. We knew that we were committed to Tennessee. And we really took pride in keeping it together through one of the toughest times in the program’s history.
“It was tough, but it was fun. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Walker, now the Fellowship of Christian Athletes campus director at Tennessee-Chattanooga, was at Pinecrest Golf Club in Dyer to share his testimony with those paid to participate in the Little General-Northwest Tennessee FCA Golf Classic.
He also took time to talk football and fellowship with The Messenger, touching on the three Vol coaches during his time there and the recruiting process that took him from Memphis to Knoxville.
A prep All-American and highly recruited player at Christian Brothers in Memphis, Walker experienced the highest level of the recruiting business.
Recruited by Nick Saban at Alabama and Les Miles at LSU among others, he chose Tennessee because of Vol coach Fulmer.
“There’s always some things in recruiting that open your eyes,” Walker said. “There are a lot of things that go on in the recruiting game. And it is a game. The reason I went to Tennessee was because coach Fulmer didn’t play those games. He spent four-and-a-half hours in my house and didn’t talk about football until the last 20 minutes. He got to know my family. My coach was there with his family, and coach Fulmer got to know them. That’s what I was sold on. Most coaches came in, and it was football, football, football. Coach Fulmer came in and it was family, fishing, cooking and then a little football later.”
Walker was also sold on a veteran staff of older men who put faith, family and football in perspective. So, when Fulmer was let go after a 5-7 record in 2008 — one year after going 10-4 and reaching the SEC championship game — Walker was understandably down.
“I was definitely upset about it because those were the guys who recruited me, the guys I was comfortable with and my family was comfortable with,” Walker said. “So, it was tough. We had a lot of guys who were Fulmer guys — and we still consider ourselves Fulmer guys. It was tough to get over it so fast because he was coach who was so close to us and had invested so much in us as young men.”
Then, like a whirlwind, the brash, young USC-trained Kiffin took over. While his style grated on many football fans in the SEC, including many who wear Orange and White, Walker embraced his new head coach.
“We had the complete opposite from coach Fulmer’s staff to coach Kiffin’s staff,” Walker said. “But there was a part to it that we enjoyed at times. Outside, people didn’t really understand coach Kiffin. They thought he was just an arrogant, trash-talking young whatever. But, in house, we loved coach Kiffin. He made football fun to play and a very comfortable atmosphere. He had an attitude and a swag to him that was infectious, and something that we needed after being so down about coach Fulmer being fired. His way of getting us out of that was to say we’re going to play football and win games because we still had Alabama, LSU and Florida on the schedule.”
Walker particularly remembers the introductory press conference, where Kiffin said it was going to be fun singing Rocky Top all night after beating Florida in Gainesville.
“I can remember sitting on my couch in Knoxville thinking to myself, ‘Oh my goodness. This guy just called out the defending national champions — with Tim Tebow — and we have to go down there to play them. Either this dude is crazy, or he really believes in what he can get done.’ And, it was a little of both,” Walker said. “He was a little crazy, but he definitely believed in his coaching style, his staff and in us. He didn’t know us at all, but he came in very confident in what he could do with us.”
Despite losing that Florida game, the Vols finished 7-6, but Kiffin soon bolted for USC to take over as head coach.
Enter Dooley … and frustration. While Tennessee went to a bowl game in Dooley’s first season, the Vols finished 6-7, losing two games — LSU in Baton Rouge and North Carolina in the Music City Bowl — where they were ahead at the end of regulation only to see a penalty force another play.
The UNC game brought down the curtain on a career during which Walker posted 105 total tackles, including 10 sacks and 18 total stops for a loss. He also intercepted four passes.
Walker hopes he and his fellow seniors helped UT survive during those trying times. He also believes they will soon be over.
Taking advantage of new head coach Butch Jones’ “welcome back” attitude toward former players, he met with the new Vols’ skipper about two weeks after he was hired. He was impressed that Jones took time during a visit by recruits to talk with him, and even more impressed that the new skipper already knew a little about the former Vol.
“He took the time to get to know me and ask questions about me,” Walker said. “And, he already knew some things about me, and that was impressive because that’s what Tennessee’s built on. I can remember as a freshman, Peyton Manning, Leonard Little, Albert Haynesworth, Al Wilson and those guys being around all the time. That motivated me because that’s what our program’s built on. They gave back to the younger guys, and all they ask of us is to continue that tradition.
“So, to have coach Jones say that he wanted those guys to be at practice and be a part of the program is a welcome change.”
Another welcome change will be Tennessee becoming an elite program again. Walker says it will take time, but that it will happen.
“I heard somewhere that from the time coach Fulmer left to the time coach Dooley got there, we had 45 scholarship players leave,” Walker noted. “That’s offense, defense, special teams and then some backups. That’s a whole team you have to replace. We’re still recovering from that, but I think coach Jones is going to do it. There’s going to be the day when Tennessee’s back on top, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Published in The Messenger 6.14.13