With questions swirling Derek Dooley like sharks before last season, former Tennessee running back Jay Graham left South Carolina to come to his alma mater and coach the position where he once starred. It was a move seen as a show of loyalty and as a commitment to help UT rebuild to its former state of respectability.
A year and a half later, Graham departed Tennessee for Florida State on Monday, sending shock waves through a consistently rattled fan base and raising bright red question marks about just how and why something like this happened with seemingly no recent signs of concern.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones confirmed Graham's departure via Twitter:
"Jay Graham informed us of his decision to accept a position at another institution," Jones tweeted. "The process of adding a new coach to our staff is underway, and we will hire the best person possible as we continue to build our program."
On one hand, Dooley and his staff has since been fired and Graham was the only assistant coach retained by Jones, who overhauled UT's staff with his own assistants. On the other, only one assistant on the new staff makes less than Graham's $260,000, so there was certainly a reason for Graham to maybe not be ecstatic with the way the new hires shook out.
Graham left Knoxville for Tallahassee, getting a considerable raise from FSU along with "more responsibility," according to the Volquest.com story. Jones could have given the recruiting coordinator title to Graham but instead pegged new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni with the title at UT. Now, Jones is left looking for another coach who can provide the recruiting and coaching ability that Graham did in his one season at UT. It is unclear whether or not Jones tried to match any offers from FSU or give Graham a raise.
Though Graham failed to bring in an elite running back while coaching the position at UT -- a failure that irked many who followed recruiting -- he wound up with a solid year recruiting, landing the jewel of Tennessee's class in wide receiver MarQuez North, among others. Most importantly, and not to be overlooked, he took a putrid running game during the 2011 season and made it more than respectable during 2012's 5-7 campaign.He turned Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane into quality running backs and the turnaround at that position was pretty unprecedented for one season.
Now, the Vols legend has left the Vols, and we're all left with concerns. How does this happen? How does Jones let this happen? Why does Graham want it to happen, anyway? There are a lot of questions out there, and quite frankly, there are going to be a lot of hurt feelings among fans and alumni because this happened.
All of the goodwill that has been fostered by Jones and his staff in recruiting and in reaching out to former players still remains -- and that's a good, solid beginning to getting this program back on the right track. But the flirtation with Tee Martin to make him UT's new WRs coach ended with the former national champion Tennessee quarterback electing to stay in Southern California rather than join Jones' staff. Now, the one person we pointed to as a Vol For Life, a man who continued to give his all for Tennessee even in these dark times, has jumped ship.
It's confusing, to say the least. I know that UT is in dire financial straits, but surely giving Graham some more money and trying to convince him to stay weren't out of the equation. Was Jones indifferent on whether or not he stayed? If so, why? Did Graham feel financially slighted? Did he never really buy in to the new staff's philosophy?
We can ask questions all day. The bottom line is this: Butch Jones wants to be at Tennessee. Jay Graham showed today that he really doesn't right now. I don't know what to say about that other than it hurts and it sucks, and it probably will until we find out the reasoning behind it -- if we ever find that out.
This impacts a lot but doesn't change anything.
- The first and foremost impact is Jones needs to find a coach with Southern ties who can recruit and also who shares his offensive philosophy. We don't know exactly what that philosophy is yet or if Graham ever meshed well with it because we haven't seen the on-field product yet.
- The second thing is we need to bring in a coach with ties to other elite players in the 2014 recruiting class, because Graham and his relationships are gone.
- The other, related, thing a lot of folks aren't thinking about is this move minimizes UT's recruiting impact in the Carolinas, where they were teaming Graham and Tommy Thigpen in what appeared to be a formidable force. Now, Graham goes to FSU -- already a recruiting monster -- and takes his Carolina ties with him.
- Most importantly, we have to find a great Xs and Os coach to coach our runners because, quite simply, that's what Graham was.
What it doesn't change is we've got a completely new product that is going to trot out there this spring and next fall. That was going to be the case whether or not Graham stayed. What doesn't change is UT made what appeared at the time to be a bargain-basement hire in Jones, who has done nothing but positive things while at the helm in Knoxville until Graham left.
You can choose to have questions about Jones now that our one true anchor to the glory days is gone -- nobody would fault you for that. But it does not change the new, invigorating blood pumping through the system. It does not change the excitement that many UT brethren have after hearing Jones speak and witnessing him work.
It is bad that Graham is gone, but it doesn't erase the positive things that have happened and are happening.
A portion of the blame for this shocking departure goes on Jones' shoulders -- but don't forget the "VFL" who left. Graham made a business decision, and it's difficult to fault him for that. But as a UT fan, it's also difficult not to blame him for it as well.
Jones will always have to find a way to overcome coaches leaving [even when they're legends, though that makes it much harder] if the Vols are successful, and the next hire has to be the right one -- for coaching as well as recruiting. Recruits are in show-me mode. Fans are in show-me mode. The nation is in show-me mode. There is only one place that Jones can show us that we should trust him and that's on the field.
News like Monday's doesn't help perception. But if you think Jones is blind to the public relations problems Graham's departure presents, you haven't listened to him or watched him over the past four months. He knows this is a blow to the honeymoon, but he probably also knows it isn't the dark omen some UT fans will make it out to be. It just stinks, and we're having to cope with it. Given recent history, Vols fans aren't the best at handling things like this.
If you'd have asked me the one constant with this new staff, the one thing I knew, I would have said that Graham was an anchor who would help bridge the gap from the success of the glory days to the new blood in place in Knoxville today. I thought he was happy, and I thought he was going to be a big part of this program moving forward.
Obviously, I know nothing. When I heard the news this morning, I just pulled up the writing window and thought, "It's just another day as a Vols fan." Just when I think nothing can happen that will surprise me, more bad news floods out of my alma mater.
The only way for Jones to stop the bleeding is win.