Stephens Says He's Not Bitter

After four years as Tennessee's offensive line coach, Jimmy Ray Stephens was fired in the aftermath of a 5-6 season.

The move surprised Stephens, considering Vols coach Phillip Fulmer had told Stephens a few weeks beforehand that his job was safe. Fulmer also said Stephens was the best teacher he'd had among his offensive line coaches.

Stephens, a former Florida player and nine-year Gator assistant, said he's not bitter about the way things ended at Tennessee.

``No, you can't be,'' said Stephens, recently hired as offensive line coach at Middle Tennessee State University. ``It'll eat you up if you are.

``Obviously, it doesn't make you happy when you get let go. But there were no tears shed in our household. It was one of things in the long run that may be a blessing in disguise, you never know. You have to look to the future and think positive.

``The Good Lord put eyes in the front of our head, not behind, so I'm not looking back. In this profession, you expect those kind of things to happen at some point in time. If I felt I did a poor job based on my performance, that's one thing. When you don't feel like that's the case, then that's another.

``No, I'm not bitter. It doesn't do any good to be.''

Tennessee rushed for just 128.3 yards per the game to rank among the worst running teams in the SEC. On the other hand, the line was responsible for allowing fewer than 10 sacks, Stephens said. And in 2004, the Vols produced two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time in school history.

After being fired by Fulmer, Stephens initially said he wanted to return to the Gainesville area to perhaps coach high school football, which he did for 13 years before joining the Florida staff in 1993.

When Rick Stockstill got the head job at MTSU, Stephens gave his friend a call.

``We had a lot of discussions over the years about what we'd like on the coaching staff and having a bunch of guys that are good people, number one, and enjoy working together and have fun in coaching,'' said Stephens, who recruited the same area of Florida as Stockstill. ``When he got the job over here, I gave him a call and it worked out.''

Stephens said the working environment was important to him, hinting that wasn't the case at Tennessee.

``I said basically if I go back to college, it will be with a good bunch of guys that I enjoy working with on the staff,'' Stephens said.

``Obviously, you make less money here than at an SEC type school, but I think I'll be happier.''

Stephens, 51, said he isn't sure if he'll remain a college coach as opposed to one day returning to high school.

``You never know what the future holds,'' he said. ``I do know football at the high school level, you have the purity of the sport more there and I think you can have a greater influence on young people's lives. And obviously, I'd be able to run my own program the way I see fit.

``It's all a matter of who you work with. I've been doing this for 29 years and right now, relationships with people – it's all a matter of who you get associated with. If things work out the way I think they will at Middle, I think we'll have a good staff with good people.''

Stephens said he was not surprised that Vols guard Rob Smith, who projects to be a second-day NFL draft pick, decided to forgo his senior season and turn pro. He said Smith being close to a degree was a factor.

``I'm sure he'll do well (in the NFL),'' Stephens said. ``He's a fighter.''

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