6:59 a.m. ET, February 5, 2014
The fax machine in the corner of the Tennessee football “war room,” a windowless conference room on the top floor of the university’s Anderson Training Center, is ringing. A couple of people jump. It’s a test call. It’s not even the “real” fax machine, though it’s decorated with a custom foam board graphic and surrounded by Volunteers paraphernalia for the benefit of the cameras. To ensure the dotting of I’s and crossing of Power T’s, Tennessee’s recruits actually fax their National Letters of Intent to a different number, which goes to the compliance team in another room somewhere else on the floor. Once those staffers verify the letter, they’ll send their own fax to the war room, where the signed player’s name will be announced to cheers, and a large magnet bearing his name and photo will be slapped up on the whiteboard wall at one end of the room.
But when the roving cameras aren’t rolling and the fax machine isn’t humming, there’s a tranquility in the room, a palpable sense of relaxation that belies both the effort it took Butch Jones’s coaching staff to get here and the series of unlikelihoods that vaulted the Volunteers’ 2014 recruiting class into the national top five.
In the years since the decline of the Phil Fulmer regime, the Vols have brought in ace recruiters like Lane Kiffin and strong pedigrees like Derek Dooley, but none managed to assemble a class of this regard. Jones’s staff, which recorded five wins in a nightmarish hellscape of a first season and which will face more of the same while fielding a dauntingly young team in 2014, has outstripped all recent predecessors. How? There’s more than one answer.
The fax machine in the war room chirps again, for real this time. The Vols have already recorded 16 midyear signees, led by in-state stars Josh Malone and Jalen Hurd, 14 of whom elected to enroll early at the university. The team will more than double that number today,1 and the first new addition is one of a double-handful of legacy kids peppering the 2014 class: Todd Kelly Jr., the son of a former Vols standout and a product of Knoxville’s tony Webb School.
The assembled staff claps several times. It’s that cupped-hand coach clap. The day has begun.
It’s flatly impossible, on the first Wednesday in February, to find an FBS football coach who’s not singularly focused on singing the praises of his new flock. But what’s going on at Tennessee right now looks like the start of something else. The first program to win a BCS national title has not returned to the championship game since that storied undefeated 1998 season, has not recorded a winning record in conference play since 2007, has not appeared in a bowl game since 2010, has not won a bowl game since 2008, and has seen four head coaches come and go over the last six seasons. This kind of recruiting class isn’t just good by Tennessee’s meager standards of recent years. It’s a bountiful crop overflowing with promise. And we’re not the only ones who think so.
The war room has four oversize flat-screen televisions at one end. One television is running ESPNU’s Signing Day coverage on mute; the other three show Tennessee football slides and highlights. In the middle of the screens, the Vols’ in-house media coverage of the day’s events is projected onto the wall. Administrative staff, student workers, and media line the walls; the coaching staff is sprawled out around a central conference table. Jones is decked out in a suit and orange tie; his assistants are all dressed for varying degrees of comfort in a motley assortment of branded school gear. One of the cameras in the back is recording a live feed of the war room, to be broadcast on the school’s website. It’s on a 30-second delay, so when Jones’s coffee mug tips over (“First fumble of the class!”), the gleeful staffers are able to rewatch it and chide their boss’s cup discipline.2
The war room is crowded with laughs, tinged with exhaustion, the staff loose enough for punchy moments like this one. With about half of the expected class already signed and sealed and the vast majority of the rest foregone conclusions, today feels like a formality.
College football recruiting isn’t the Sneetches. Teams can’t just pluck the star-bellied players from the nearest beach and magic their way into the postseason. But the idea that star rankings don’t amount to anything isn’t borne out by the recent history of the starred players, and even a historic college football cathedral program like Tennessee has its work cut out for it. It’s Tennessee, but it’s a football team fallen on hard times. The state is historically not a prolific producer of elite talent. And even in boom recruiting seasons like this one, fifth place in the national rankings is still only good for fourth place in the conference.
Eric Berry, former Vols star and current Kansas City Pro Bowler, has flown into Atlanta for the signing ceremony of his little brothers, fraternal twins named Evan and Elliott. We should try to get Eric on the phone later, says one coach. Jones says his first good-luck text on Signing Day came from Jason Witten, another Vol luminary turned NFL star.
One weird hallmark of the Dooley administration, which preceded Jones’s, was a series of repeated attempts to regiment the contact former Tennessee players had with current ones. Those practices are no more. For the most part, Jones and his assistants Ain’t From Around Here, and while that may have been considered a detrimental factor in Knoxville in past years, it also means they carried no baggage into Tennessee.
“You know what?” says Zach Azzanni, Tennessee’s receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. “I think back years ago, that was a much bigger deal than it is now. The landscape of football has changed so dramatically. The Knoxville people, I don’t think they care where we’re from as long as we win football games. They used to. Now, it’s ‘We want to win games, so I’m onboard. I don’t care where you’re from.’ That’s been neat.”
He continues: “I think also they feel the fact we all want to be here. No one’s renting. It’s not a temporary deal. Three or four of us have built houses. We’re trying to prove this is not a jumping ground. We’ve all been a lot of different places. We’ve all been there, done that at other programs. And we also understand that if there’s any chance of us turning this around, stability is key. They haven’t had that here in the last five years.”
The fax machine goes off, and a phone rings. “It’s Dillon,” says Tommy Thigpen, linebackers coach and one of the team’s key recruiters, answering his cell phone. Dillon is Ponte Vedra linebacker Dillon Bates, another legacy commit, the son of Vols and Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates. The room is fuller now, the applause louder. The coaches pass Thigpen’s phone around, congratulating Bates-the-younger in turn. Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek, on calls with other players, swap calls in a tangle of arms and iPhones.
“I think first of all, [the alumni] are the program,” Jones says. “They’re the ones that have built this program from the ground up, with all their sweat equity. And just the overall energy that can be felt with our former players has been amazing. The amount of former players at our games. The amount of former players at practice, or just in the building. You talk about being proud, when all those individuals at the Super Bowl are talking about being a Tennessee Vol? To me, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
With so many of their commitments locked up, Tennessee’s coaches3 are using the windfall of Signing Day quiet time to make inroads for the class of 2015. The Vols have a half-dozen or so verbal commitments from current high school juniors, and there’s a stack of orange greeting cards with white Power T’s in the middle of the table. Any coach with a free minute grabs one and a Sharpie and starts writing. Others are occupied making FaceTime calls to next year’s recruits. “This time next year, this will be your day.” “Just one more year, and we’ll be watching your press conference up there.” “Your football family up here, they all love you and they can’t wait to see you again.” “We love you, man.” Always “We love you.”
“It’s what it is these days,” says Azzanni. “You’ve got to get on it early and stay on it early. It’s a year, year-and-a-half-long process with these young men. And I guarantee, if you’re not talking to him, someone else is.”
Adds Thigpen: “Chaos comes when there’s no relationships built. The kids are gonna go where they feel most comfortable.”
The fax machine rings. It’s Vic Wharton, who was the first 2014 player to publicly commit to Tennessee, and the inciting end of a chain reaction of friendships the likes of which the coaches all swear they’ve never seen.
“Todd Kelly and Vic Wharton grew up together right here in Knoxville,” Thigpen says. “Vic leaves for Independence High School, where him and Rashaan Gaulden are friends. Rashaan and Derek Barnett were friends. Barnett and Malone were friends. Hurd and Malone live 10 miles away from each other. Hurd and [Michael] Sawyers were good friends. It’s just a perfect storm. It was really unique.
“And some of those guys were out of state. Like [midyear signee D'Andre] Payne. Payne was from D.C. Well, Payne used to run against Wharton in track. And his grandparents live right here in Knoxville. The common theme was some kind of tie with all of them to Tennessee.”
Those ties among players forged a succession of Tennessee commitments that made for an oddly peaceful Signing Day.
“This is probably the closest-knit recruiting class I’ve ever been a part of,” Jones says. “You’re always anxious and nervous until you get the signed fax, but it was great not to have any drama this year.”
The players in the Central Time Zone are awake, and the faxes are coming in just a few minutes apart now. The next name on the wall is Gaulden’s. One coach chuckles about a high-profile SEC school that “just sent him a scholarship in the mail. No other contact.”
“I’ve never [been this relaxed],” Thigpen says. “And it’s due to these kids being committed for so long, and also the fact that they’re all so tight-knit. Young people, they’ll manipulate older people — us — and tell us what we want to hear. But they won’t manipulate their peers. Whatever they tell their peers is usually what they’re gonna do. Those guys said they were gonna stick it out, and they did. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a really unique year, because, again, there was no drama. There was no sitting back wondering who was gonna change hats.”
Four-star running back Derrell Scott’s NLI emerges from the fax machine, and running backs coach Robert Gillespie practically sprints around his colleagues to add a brick to the orange-and-white pyramid under construction on a side table. Scott’s on the phone.
“If I could jump through this phone and chest-bump you, I’d do that,” Jones says.
Thigpen knows the Vols were able to land players like Scott in part because of the team’s struggles and inexperience. “Playing time is always key. Real players want to play,” Thigpen says. “That was the no. 1 thing we were able to sell this year. Next year we might not be able to say that. We might not be able to say to a linebacker or a running back, ‘You can come in and play right away.’ We can say that at running back this year.”
Fax arrival: kicker Aaron Medley.
“I think any good recruiter or recruiting staff, any good head coach is always going to look for anything to set ourselves apart,” Azzanni says. “Whether it’s a different style of visit, different stationery, anything. You never know what will make their decision. So you have to do it all. You can never assume, because every kid is different, has a different path to Signing Day. The one thing that our current kids have said to me is, Coach, when you come up, you can feel the energy here right now. You feel like we’re pushing a rock up a hill and we’re about to get it over.”
Fax arrival: linebacker Gavin Bryant.
That Sisyphean task gets real in 2014. With widespread attrition on an already ragged roster, the Vols will open the season at home versus Utah State and a presumably healthy Chuckie Keeton. They travel to Oklahoma in Week 3, and face Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, and Missouri in conference play. Being able to sell playing time also means accepting the realities of fielding green prospects against polished opponents, and the Vols know that turning a top-five class into a top-five AP poll finish isn’t an instant affair — or even an eventual guarantee.
“I think on our schedule we have nine programs that went to bowl games this past year, so it’s gonna be another gauntlet,” Jones says. “We’re going to be an extremely young team in a lot of spots. Talented, but youthful. We sold them on the vision of being able to come in and contribute early and make an impact early.”
Fax arrival: running back Treyvon Paulk.
“Everyone knows there’s ebbs and flows in college football,” Azzanni says. “We used this saying early on in the summer: ‘You can either watch us or you can help us, because I think we’re gonna go win the national title. So you can go somewhere else, and that’s fine, but you will watch us do it. Or you can come help us.’”
Jeannine Edwards and an ESPN camera crew, camped out in the complex all day as part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage, are in the room for the arrival of defensive end Dewayne Hendrix’s NLI.
“You have about 75 people watching a fax machine,” Jones says to the cameras. “It’s kinda boring. But it’s an exciting day.”
Next letter in: Jashon Robertson, defensive tackle out of Nashville and a Vanderbilt decommit following James Franklin’s departure to Penn State.
“I don’t know if it’s ever going to get much easier in this conference,” Azzanni says. “We told all the recruits this year, ‘Hey, don’t make your decision based off this season.’ I mean, that was our first eight months. Don’t do that. You come here to play the Oklahomas in your nonconference [slate]. You come here to play in those games.”
A phone call from defensive tackle Charles Mosley beats his faxed letter by several seconds. Fans will want to remember Big Charles, which shouldn’t be too much trouble once they see his hair:
Mosley, who was also pursued by Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia, was asked last month what made Tennessee stand out. He credited Jones: “That little man’s just fired up!”
“The great thing about Butch is, he put together a staff that has all, at some point in our careers, worked together, and all have a connection to him,” Azzanni says. “So we didn’t have to come in and sit down and have him say, ‘OK, here’s my vision.’ We all knew what he wanted and we hit the road running. ‘See you. I’m out on the road, and we’re rolling.’”
The arrival of one of the day’s most hotly anticipated letters, from defensive end Derek Barnett, sends the entire staff to its feet. Another middle Tennessee product, Barnett received offers from Florida State, LSU, Ohio State, and Texas A&M.
“I think if you look around, there’s something new every time the recruits come up here,” Thigpen says. “He keeps the theme different every time they come up. One thing about Butch is he hates routine. And if something gets stale, it drives him nuts. So you always have to come up with new ideas. He says all the time, ‘It doesn’t cost a thing, guys.’ Coming up with games, or changing up the tours. It can be anything. Dance contests. You have to be creative with the process.”
The NLI from Nashville defensive tackle Mike Sawyers, another Vandy decommit whose services were secured only the night before, is received and verified.
“We had drama going up until last night,” Azzanni says. “Things that people don’t see. We’re calling and just doing all sorts of things behind the scenes to make sure that kids are secure and kids are good. And Signing Day always brings some flips, and we understand that”
“I don’t think you ever quite exhale,” Jones says. “You have relief with different players, just because they’re a very talented group, and they had a lot of options, but you never exhale, I guess, until that fax comes through.”
The party is on. “Class of 2031, right here!” Gillespie reenters the war room toting his son, Wynston.
Four-star safety Cortez McDowell’s letter arrives.
Azzanni, by staff-wide acclaim, has the best story from the road this offseason, about an incident that occurred while chasing down another juco player, receiver Von Pearson: “A piece of ice fell off a truck and ripped the undercarriage off my rental car. I walked half a mile one way and back in 2-degree weather in Reno, then drove through the mountains about midnight with no cell service. I walked to the gas station, bought a bungee cord, came back and bungeed the bottom of my car to the engine and drove it back to the airport to get a new car and drove THAT back through the mountains to see Von. It’s 90 miles from Reno to Feather River JC through the mountains, 40 of which have no cell service. On a two-lane icy road through the Sierra Nevada mountains.” Pearson, the second-ranked player in the JC 50, signed and enrolled early.
Three-star defensive end Joe Henderson’s letter arrives. Somewhere, Jones has discarded his orange tie. The “Brick by Brick” pyramid on the table is reaching heights some staffers find dangerous: “This seemed like a really good idea at first.”
Another strong hair model, corner Bryson Durden, sends in his NLI.
Azzanni is quick to point out that he’s not the only coach who had misadventures: “I think Coach Thigpen alone brought back three pairs of rental car keys in his pockets.”
Thigpen replies: “You forget the car is NOT yours. I did three of ’em, and it was like $700 worth. They had to tow the car, rekey it, I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I’ll never put the keys in my pocket again.”
Thigpen passes the misadventure buck to Jones, who had to briefly take shelter in an Atlanta-area mall during the ice storm that ground the city to a halt: “Oh, Butch likes the mall. Don’t let him fool you. He loves the mall. Nordstrom. Not the Nordstrom Rack, either.”
A pair of fan favorites serves as the day’s finale. It’s the Berry twins’ faxes, one right after the other, and the final bricks on the increasingly precarious pyramid are set gingerly in place. Lunch isn’t even ready yet, but the class is complete. The Vols have lost one commit, defensive lineman Cory Thomas, to Mississippi State. Another, offensive lineman Orlando Brown, signs with Oklahoma later on Wednesday afternoon.
There are manly hugs and back claps. Feet go up on the center conference table. The television running ESPNU in the corner is turned up. Rising senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who bypassed early entry to the NFL draft to stay one more season in Knoxville, swings by for a visit. The coaches hoot: “No. 1 recruit this year! There he is!”
Jones takes the mic in the media center beneath Neyland Stadium for his wrap-up press conference and begins to temper expectations: “I want to guard against all of the expectations that are going to come with this recruiting class,” Jones says. “We have to still remember that these are 17- and 18-year-old individuals. It is like raising your children. Everything is about their personal growth and development. Each individual will mature differently … These were highly recruited individuals, but that doesn’t make them any better football players.”
It dampens the luster of the day a little, but it’s a necessary reminder that a brilliant start is just that: a start. The stars are aligned on Rocky Top. Now the stars must go to work.
Some quotes in this article are from interviews that occurred after the time stamps under which they appear here.
(Images courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.)