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February 6, 2014

The never-ending cycle

War Room photo gallery


The day never begins. It is an extension of its previous iteration; there is no ending next year, either.

Essentially, Feb. 6, 2013 morphs one long overnight insomniac's highway to this day, Feb. 5, 2014, this signing day at the University of Tennessee --- let's be clear, it's this way at virtually every major college football program where recruiting is both program lifeblood and oxygen --- where the clock now ticks toward this same calendar fixture, the first Wednesday in February, 2015.

Wednesday morning the first fax, from Todd Kelly Jr., might be rolling in moments after 7, moments after Kelly texts Butch Jones a photo of a brick atop a stove eye in his Knoxville home, but it remains equal parts culmination and segue.

Tennessee cannot move its football program forward without the players, 35 of them, whom the school formally unveils this day, but it also cannot forge ahead without already having done so.

Which is exactly the scene from the Volunteers' "Signing Day War Room."

Jones is there, he estimates, between 6:15-6:30. So is every assistant coach. The first man in is Brandon Lawson, football player personnel administrator for the Vols; former U.S. Marine from President George W. Bush's HMX-1 helicopter squadron; impromptu produce man, as he assists in the unloading of a truck outside Tennessee's Vegas-worthy, $45 million Anderson Training Center.

There is not to be much drama for the Vols on this day; a ballyhooed recruiting class, one that closes the day on Rivals.com's big board at No. 5, owns just three pieces of movement --- two additions, one subtraction --- during this cycle's grand two-week close.

Nonetheless, Jones is instinctively nervous. Almost 25 years of signing days breeds an inherent skepticism, especially as memories of narrow misses in his one-month '13 class at Tennessee linger.

"Every day," Jones says, no hesitation, in discussing how often he reaches into his memory bank to fund this year's ongoing motivation. "And we're Tennessee. But we made a commitment to each other as coaches that we were going to have a top five, top 10 recruiting class. And you know, it's not stars and it's not rankings, it's in our mind finding the individuals that fit our recruiting profile. We're very excited because we feel these individuals fit obviously that recruiting profile.

"We are, and every day we talk about making history. Tennessee is a special place, and the other thing I think that's critical with this recruiting class is that they already have an affinity for Tennessee. They understand what that 'Power T' is all about."

Jones' "history" comment isn't exactly coach speak; since the debut of Rivals' team rankings in 2002, no program entering its season of sustenance on the heels of a losing campaign matches the Vols' recruiting haul of 18 total four- and five-star prospects. Tennessee is engineering what it believes is a tent revival class on the dusk of four-straight losing campaigns.

"This morning, Coach just said 'Get ready, this is history. It's going to be fun and it's going to be historic.' That's probably right, if you think about it," Tennessee director of player personnel Bob Welton shares. "We're hoping four years from now we'll look back and say 'You know what, it was historic. What they did was pretty special.'"

Tennessee's coaches seem only willing to briefly acknowledge this when television crews file into prospect central or when a phalanx of support staff emphasizes a point. Bricks --- literal ones to match Jones' figurative nomenclature for his prospects --- also must be stacked by each commitment's corresponding lead recruiter or position coach.

Faxes are slow to trickle in for what surely must be one of the antiquated devices final acts of relevancy, but no one is overly nervous. The Vols know they are adding four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers; they are realistic about the addition becoming a de facto swap with news Cory Thomas wears Mississippi State colors to his McCalla, Ala., high school.

Ultimately, it is one less phone call to make as the Vols' coaches dial up approximately 250 2015-16 prospects. Coaches FaceTime recruits, passing around each staffer's phone like ciphers to a quiz. Even hours later, during the program's sold-out recruiting celebration inside the regal Tennessee Theater, future prospects are calling Tennessee's current assistant coaches.

"Look forward to seeing what you wear to your press conference in a year," one recruit is told.

"You know who invented Wide Receiver U., don't you? Alright, look forward to seeing you right away," another coach gushes.

Defensive coordinator John Jancek jokes with Jones to wipe off his phone before returning it; there's enough anxiety, enough bustle that coaches still coerce a sweat.

Known for still hand-writing recruiting missives, Jones is leading the way inside the Vols' war room again as papers, now from Dillon Bates, the prep All-America linebacker and one of six Tennessee signees who boasts a heritage connection to UT athletics, arrive. Vic Wharton, Tennessee's first pledge in this class, files next.

Each signee also speaks via phone with multiple members of the Vols' staff; still, it isn't uncommon for multiple phones for prospects from multiple years to be circling the room.

"I don't think people really understand that part of it. Yeah, we're three or four months into our '15s already. And into some big-time '16s. So that's the benefit of also closing out a class relatively early, is getting a jump on those '15s," UT receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni, operating full-bore on what he guesses is zero hours of REM sleep, explains. "These days there's a ton of great staffs and great recruiters and if you're not talking to them today someone else is. You've got to do your best to keep up with that. I'm sitting there tweeting at midnight (Tuesday) night and I'm sitting there tweeting '15s. And my wife (Julia) says, 'What are you doing? Who is that?' And when I tell her, she's like 'My goodness.' Yeah, we're good (for this signing day). We're looking at 365 (days) from now. It's unbelievable, but that's the way it's moving. It wasn't even like that five years ago, but it's changed dramatically. And today was a big day for next year."

Innovations are a big part of this class' recruiting curriculum. Jones' visage adorns customized room keys --- for prospects and guests alike --- at the downtown Knoxville hotel where recruits are housed on official visits. Those same recruits, for the first time in UT's history, alternately take turns captaining a ship on the Tennessee River during Sunday morning breakfast cruises since the school's addition of the waterway as campus territory in the fall.

"The first thing Coach told me when he got here, he said, 'I'm a gas guy; not a brake guy. You do your thing.' And that's all I needed to hear," says Jonathan King, Tennessee's first-ever director of graphic design and branding. "Given the opportunity to sit around and come up with cool new things to do is the best job in the world. …

"The room key, it just gives you one more, a little more real estate to brand. It's just one more thing that you can get their eyes on that has your face, has your program plastered on it. When it comes to the river and campus and things like that, we have these really great ideas and sometimes there may be things we have to do or hoops we have to jump through, so we try to be as creative as we can in finding out what exactly we have to do within the rules the NCAA has laid out and make sure we're following all those rules. But we want to do this idea, so we're going to see it out."

From a recruiting perspective, no one on Tennessee's staff owns more signing day experience on Rocky Top than Scott Altizer, the program's director of high school relations. Altizer knows firsthand that signing day success breeds tremendous on-field potential; he remembers the Vols owning recruiting in the mid-1990s and reeling off a college football-best 45-5 stretch. Similarly, he knows recent years' shortcomings coincide directly with Tennessee's slip in the SEC hierarchy.

"The thing that you learn quickly about Coach Jones is that he comes every day with his hair on fire. It is unbelievable," says Altizer, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. "And if you really sit back and think about it, he was recruiting last year with impossible circumstances. The one thing I love about him is that even though he was short-stacked last year and it was a little disappointing, although we'll see how that class turns out as it plays forward, in coach Jones' own mind he didn't do enough. And I'm sure this year, with him, and with what makes him great, is that he's never really satisfied. That doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy it, but as seen (Wednesday) he's already driving on '15s, '16s and that's why he's the leader.

"Where he sets the tone, everybody follows. I think last year when he mentioned that, I didn't really have a doubt that we'd be sitting here where we are today. I don't think I ever expected it to happen as quickly as we did. But I think that's seeing things change anyway. Recruiting is much different than it used to be, and I don't think, I think the days of getting 15 people on the last day is not going to happen anymore because schools have to plan. You've really got to be ahead of the curve, and that's the one thing Coach does. He keeps us ahead of the curve all the time. We had a lot of great plans for a bunch of different things, different rule changes got in the way and changed on the fly that came up or it may have been even more impressive."

The curve, of course, is what Tennessee is seeking to shorten, then straighten. Those four consecutive losing seasons that about this expectation-laden recruiting haul? History's benchmarks for college football's eighth-winningest program are not kind; the Chicago Cubs were defending a World Series title the last time the Vols were heading into a stretch of four-straight non-winning seasons.

This, however, is a day of hope even if it is a day that never ends.

"It's a pride for Tennessee of trying to build this program back, and we've said it from day one walking in these doors," Jones says. "It's easy to go somewhere where a program is established and winning. We want individuals who have that competitive character who want to get Tennessee back, and that's what this class brings us. Very pleased with the class. I thought our staff did a tremendous job. But everyone associated with Tennessee football, from our administration to our fan base to everyone, they've done a great job of helping us establish and really get this class done."

By 12:55 p.m., the bricks are being emptied from the room and one signing day gives way to another. Jones' phone is buzzing. February 4, 2015, seems like it's practically arriving as he speaks.


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