During the coaching transition, we Vols fans were quite entertaining to the casual people-watcher. Yet the fans weren't the only ones who were dealing with unknown quantities in their decisions. The current class of football recruits also had to resolve the coaching changes in their minds in order to make a decision on whether to attend UT or not.
The Existing Verbal Commits
At the time of Fulmer's resignation announcement, UT had, by all counts, a top-15 class and was looking at comfortably finishing in the top 10 in the nation. We had a top-flight quarterback on the list, as well as another high-quality guy who couldn't affirm his love for UT enough. Sure, the actual season was a train wreck, but at least there seemed to be a steady supply of worthy players to reload for the next season. On top of that, Fulmer was legendary for big finishes in recruiting.
Only the big finish never had a chance. Fulmer was dismissed (most likely due to the drop in income of the athletic department due to fan apathy). In comes this 33-year old who, despite some very impressive resume lines and pedigree, had all of 20 games under his head coaching belt - and that under the Senile Sith Lord of the NFL.
So what were the current verbal commits to think? Most fell into a holding pattern; with 3 months until National Signing Day (from the date of Fulmer's announcement), there was plenty of time to consider the possibilities. Some were fond of UT and hoped to play there no matter who the coach was. Others were fond of Fulmer (or a particular staff member) and were unsure if they could re-establish a similar bond at UT. Still others took the opportunity to flip their verbal commitment to schools that were probably already on roughly equal footing in their hearts. All the while, they had media mikes stuck in their faces asking their opinions, as each journalist hoped to be the one to find that next hot quote regarding Fulmer's dismissal. More pervasive than the mikes, the recruiters from rival schools sensed the opportunity to tear apart the UT class for their own benefits. What was once smooth sailing suddenly swelled into a pitch-black storm.
That's a lot for most 18-year old males to experience at once. Remarkably, though, the response was rather placid. A few recruits were lost, most were retained. But their silence spoke with the greatest volume; by the time the announcement was made, these guys had already been through a year of the recruiting game. While we see them as incoming freshmen, most were already far more experienced at contract negotiations than most college graduates on the day they wear their mortarboard.
The Disinterested Prospect
While the current prospects didn't yield much entertainment for those inclined toward human dynamics, many other prospects provided quite the show.
If one thing holds true about Lane Kiffin, it's that he is not cut from the same cloth as everybody else. Too openly honest for his own good at times, he has said nothing outside of his solemn promise to be the hardest worker, to have the hardest working staff, and to be the best in every way. "Working like heck" jokes aside, his insistence on outrecruiting eveybody has drawn the interest (read: ire) of opposing fanbases. It has also drawn the interest of many prospects.
Backing up his words with action, Kiffin methodically drew in high-profile assistants known for their recruiting prowess. Starting with the most well-known defensive coordinator in football and the most dialectically-lampooned RECROOTAH!!, Lane's promises to be the best appeared to have some substance behind them. Enough substance, at least, to keep UT's name floating on ESPN and the recruiting websites like clockwork. His Minnesota accent, his direct (ok, blunt) language, and his fantastically high goals seemed otherworldly.
Yet they were engaging.
As Lane and the staff hit the trail - at about Warp 6 - the reports of impressed recruits kept flooding the news boards. Nobody, after having spoken with Kiffin, came away unimpressed. While we saw the brief pressers, the recruits saw the man in person. While we recycled quips from the conferences, the recruits asked their questions and received the answers they were needing. And nobody came away disappointed.
Ask Phillips. Ask Edwards. Ask Williams. Ask Mitchell-Thornton.
While you're at it, ask Orgeron himself, who turned down a more lucrative offer from LSU.
Whether they committed to UT, kept UT on the list, or decided on another direction, no recruit has said that Lane Kiffin didn't strike a very strong and favorable impression. To a man, they view him as open, honest, and having a clear direction to success. That image has only been strengthened by key moves: advising both prospect quarterbacks that their future was better served elsewhere; commencing to clear house of academic and discipline issues - having released multiple players from UT already; setting new bars for offseason conditioning and academic commitment, even visiting the centerpiece of the EBMCC* in class.
I don't know what he's saying in the living room of a recruit when Mom and Dad are in the adjacent chairs. I don't know the conversations that are held by phone and text message. I just know that, given his straightforward manner and the response from every single recruit he meets, that Lane's plans must be pretty bold and must seem pretty achievable.
The only detriment to this year's recruiting class is time. Recruiting is about two things: establishing relationships and providing reason to believe. Recruits invariably go to schools where they feel welcome. (If Fulmer's recruiting could be summed up in one word, that word would be family.) The relationships that they establish with their primary recruiter is the most important piece of information they use to choose their college. After that, they're looking for a place that they believe will be successful, and where that success has room for them. Based on recruit feedback, the latter point is being proven at UT in spades. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to build solid relationships with 20-40 players in the span of 2-3 months to the point that they'll change their decision in your favor. The 2009 class may not be wholly salvageable after the coaching transition, but you get the feeling that, with a bit more time, Lane Kiffin and his staff could indeed bring in the best recruits from across the country.
* EBMCC :: Eric Berry Man Crush Club - If you're not a member, what are you waiting for?