It’s difficult to overstate the importance of college football to life in East Tennessee. Drive within a hundred miles of Knoxville, and you’ll see Volunteer Orange everywhere: street signs, grocery store displays, porch flags. The East Tennessee area code 865 even spells out VOL. On Saturdays, the streets are jammed at sunrise and boats docked near campus are tied 10-deep into the river. When kickoff rolls around, over 100,000 people crowd into Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. To people here, football is a central part of life—a topic of conversation 365 days a year.
But the past seven years in Knoxville have not gone as planned. During that stretch, Tennessee has finished above .500 only twice and has shuffled through four different Head Coaches. One, who left for USC in the middle of the night, is so reviled in town that the locals named a sewage plant in his “honor.” Win here, and you become a legend. Lose, and you better start prepping your resume.
This is the workplace for Mike Bajakian. As Tennessee’s Offensive Coordinator for the past two seasons, Bajakian is a household name throughout the Southeast. Since graduating from Williams two decades ago, Bajakian hasn’t lived in one place for more than three years. He’s coached at every level from high school to the NFL, including coaching a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Far from a straightforward rise, Bajakian’s up and down journey illustrates the importance of commitment and hard work when pursuing a dream.