If ever a football team needed a little comic relief, it's the Tennessee Vols.
Jim Chaney to the rescue.
Although sobered and saddened by Sunday's dismissal of head coach Derek Dooley, his boss the past three years, Chaney hasn't changed appreciably since being elevated from offensive coordinator to interim head coach. His smile isn't quite as bubbly and his wisecracks don't come quite as regularly, but he's still doing his best to keep the mood around the football complex relaxed and positive.
"It helps a lot during this tough time, obviously. He's kind of keeping it light-hearted among us," senior receiver Zach Rogers said following Tuesday's practice. "At the same time, though, he's realizing we have a lot of work left to do with this last game for the seniors."
Several teammates offer similar comments.
"It's definitely good to have someone like him being in charge now, since he is an upbeat, high-energy guy," junior safety Byron Moore said. "He brings a level of spirit that makes it easier for everybody to keep their heads up."
Sophomore running back Marlin Lane also finds Chaney's positive energy refreshing in the aftermath of so much negative emotion.
"It's like nothing really bothers Coach Chaney," Lane said. "He's the same guy every day you see him. I feel that will rub off on us after all we've gone through. Everybody will jump on his boat and be high-energy like him."
Junior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James also appreciates the interim coach's bubbly nature, noting: "Coach Chaney is a great coach, a great guy. He just let us know that this is the game we love, so don't listen to the distractions."
Senior tight end Mychal Rivera agrees that Chaney's light-hearted manner is a good tonic for a team that has had to deal with so much stress lately.
"Definitely," Rivera said. "There's no need for more negativity in the program. That's all you can do — just be optimistic and move ahead, have fun and play football."
In private, Chaney probably is more somber and serious now that the task of beating Kentucky in Saturday's finale rests squarely on his shoulders. In front of the team, however, he's as irreverent as ever.
"He's the same old Coach Chaney ... laid back," Moore said. "He's just responsible for being our head coach now, so he's taken on a new role."
James also thought Chaney was his usual upbeat self, in spite of his new title and additional responsibilities.
"He wasn't different," James said. "Coach Chaney's a steady guy, and he's always the same. He just had to play a different role, addressing the team."
Lane agreed, noting: "He was the same guy, like he is every day — high energy and intense, getting on everybody and keeping our heads together."
Rivera, however, thought Chaney seemed a little more subdued than usual.
"Coach Chaney came in with a workmanlike mindset," Rivera said. "He said it's a regular Monday. Get all of the other stuff out of your head. Football is football. Let's play it like we've been doing since we were nine or 10 years old — just go out there and have fun."
According to the players, Monday's practice with Chaney in charge was pretty similar to the Monday practices when Dooley was in charge.
"We were all relaxed out there," Rivera said. "We have one goal in mind, and that's to go out there and beat Kentucky. The whole team is focused, and we're ready for this game."
"It was the same tempo, fast-paced," Moore said. "Everybody was focused in and flying around. It was a typical Monday practice."
And it was a typical Jim Chaney wisecrack that lightened the mood during the post-practice media session. Asked if he will offer any input on defense Saturday against Kentucky, he grinned smugly and quipped: "I feel like I'll be so busy on offense that I'll be saying, 'Hey, stop 'em.' That's about all I've ever said."
Hear what the interim coach said to media after Tuesday morning's workout:
Take a listen at what Chaney had to say after Monday's practice in Knoxville: