During his locker room interview with Tim Priest in the post-victory glow of the Memphis game last night, Bryce Brown gave a great deal of the credit for the team's recent turnaround to one particular guy inside the program. It wasn't a member of the coaching staff or member of the team. It wasn't even a paid member of the administration.
It was Roger Woods, team chaplain. Bryce said that the team wasn't just playing better, it was developing chemistry. Diverse personalities were growing together, unifying behind a common purpose.
You may have heard of the emotional meeting the Friday night before the Georgia game at which the recently-injured Nick Reveiz and not-so-recently-injured Inky Johnson both addressed the team. Linebackers coach Lance Thompson called it "one of the best meetings [he's] been in in 24 years of coaching." The Vols went out and pasted the Georgia Bulldogs 45-19 the next day, triggering a string of sensational games and the apparent tipping point of the Kiffin Chimera's turnaround project.
Woods points to that Friday as "a defining moment for UT football across the board in every aspect." Like he does every Friday, Woods held chapel at the team hotel. He spoke of unity, and that Friday, the message extended not only to the players, but to the players' families as well. Earlier in the week, a parent had called and suggested that instead of the parents praying separately, they all assemble and pray together. So that Friday night at the team hotel at 10:00, probably at about the same time the players were cementing their buy-in to each other and to the program, the parents were coming together for their kids. It was a defining evening for the entire program.
When Phillip Fulmer was fired a year ago, one of the major concerns for many of us was whether growing young boys into men would remain a priority. Certainly, we wanted a coaching staff that would get the program back to its winning ways, but how would the balance between winning games and building men be struck in an era of mercenary coaches? When the last remnant of the prior coaching staff was swept away, former team chaplain James "Mitch" Mitchell went with it, and when the new staff lost Memphis recruit Marlon Brown to Mark Richt largely due to Richt's outspokenness about his faith, some were concerned that it signaled the end of an era at Tennessee.
Enter Chris Walker, Nick Reveiz, Anthony Anderson, and Jacques McClendon. Those four guys ran into Roger Woods at an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) "College Advance" event earlier this year, and launched into their own recruiting pitch. Woods, who was at the time the chaplain at UT-Chattanooga, initially resisted, but after talking with Mike Hamilton, a handful of FCA staff, and UT head coach Lane Kiffin, he reconsidered and relocated his family to Knoxville and took the job.
Since arriving in Knoxville, Woods has by all accounts done an excellent job building relationships with UT athletes. 75 people showed up for Woods's first service August 9, 2009, and the weekly meetings are now attended by an average of 150-160 student athletes. The first thing the football players do upon arriving on Shields-Watkins Field on game day is meet Woods at midfield for a team prayer (pictured above), and Woods can often be seen on the sidelines praying with players during games, but most of his impact is behind the scenes interacting with the players on a daily basis. According to Walker, "It's really important to have Roger, just because there are going to be times that we're not feeling too well or are not going to be in the right mind we need to be in. We can just go to Roger, and he'll give us the spiritual leadership and be that dad that we need here. We don't have our fathers here in Knoxville, so he's one of those guys we can just look up to."
I had the pleasure of meeting Roger the afternoon of the South Carolina game, and I could see immediately why the players love him. He was extraordinarily affable and genuine, and he made my shy 13-year-old daughter feel so welcome that she left feeling like he was her best friend. I can't tell you how glad I am that this football staff includes a guy whose sole responsibility is to mentor the players through life's great challenges.
One last thing you may not know: Woods is not employed by the University. His position is funded through the FCA, and he's responsible for raising his own financial support. If you'd like to help ensure that he can stay at UT attending to the spiritual and other non-sport needs of the players, the best thing you can do is commit to a regular gift to him through the FCA. If not that, a one-time gift will also help. Or, you can buy his CD "It's Time," which they apparently play over the Neyland public address system while the players are warming up before games. He's also got a blog, although it looks like that's not his highest priority. And by the way, Roger has not even once asked for my help with any of this. I contacted him earlier this year after learning that he's self-supported, and I just wanted to help get the word out, partly because I know (second-hand) what it's like to have to solicit donations to maintain a staff position with a charity, and mostly because it really matters to me that the program I root for cares as much about developing people as it does developing players.
Don't take my word for it. Take Bryce Brown's.