Here was Jay Graham's dilemma:
Over in Columbia, S.C., Heisman candidate running back Marcus Lattimore awaited Graham's return to his current position as South Carolina's RBs coach next season. With Lattimore's success, Graham enjoyed security. With South Carolina's recent success, Graham enjoyed stability.
In Knoxville where Derek Dooley had just offered him the same position, a stagnant running game ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams -- and 223rd out of all 240 Division I teams -- and graduating its senior leading rusher, offered a daunting challenge. With Tennessee's volatile recent coaching situation and losing record, Graham would sacrifice that security and stability.
Seems a no-brainer, right?
To Graham, it was. To Graham -- a Vols legend who is seventh on UT's long list of dominant running backs with 2,609 yards from 1993-96 -- there was never a question what he was going to do.
When you have the opportunity to snag a high-character coach with that level of loyalty and all the intangibles, you've got to make it. That's why not only was Graham perhaps the best hire Dooley could make to fill the running backs coach spot ... he may have been the only hire to make.
Way back at the beginning of the football season when the Vols were just beginning to struggle running the football, we inadvertently spent nearly an entire half hour on the podcast discussing what needed to happen to be able to generate tough yards on the ground in the SEC. It didn't take long for us all to agree that it would be best for Dooley to hire a full-time, paid running backs coach rather than have a graduate assistant [in this case Chino Fontenette] handle the duties. Prior to their ever being any discussion of Memphis' Larry Porter losing his job, there seemed to be just one name that needed to be at the top of that list.
That was Jay Graham.
The more we harped on it, the more I began to research Graham and just why he'd be the perfect fit for UT. The obvious reason is he's a Vol legend, but there are many, many more. Since the closure of a forgettable season, even more reasons emerged that made Graham the perfect fit. Here are the reasons.
- He's a heckuva coach. After a graduate assistant season with UT, Graham escalated in the coaching ranks quickly. He was hired by former UT Chattanooga coach Rodney Allison to be the running backs coach for the Mocs in 2006, then quickly moved to the University of San Diego to serve the same position. After one year there, he bolted for a bigger opportunity on UT Martin's staff as Jason Simpson hired him to be the receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. The FBS came calling immediately after when Miami (Ohio) hired him away, and Steve Spurrier got him to be the Gamecocks' running backs coach a year later.
That's a lot of moving around, but it's also the life of a young, up-and-coming coach. Once Graham got to Columbia, he has been there for three years. While Lattimore is his meal ticket, Graham really showed his coaching chops this season when a knee injury sidelined the All-SEC talent with five games to play. I remember being excited about facing USCe without Lattimore, but Graham and crew inserted little-known Brandon Wilds, who rushed for more than 100 yards against UT and finished the year with 486 yards and a 4.5 ypc average. Most importantly, the Gamecocks were 4-1 without Lattimore, only losing to Arkansas.
Many South Carolina fans -- and even coaches -- have commented about Graham's value, and it's difficult to find one negative thing said about his three seasons there.
- His recruiting abilities are impressive and often overlooked. There's no doubt that UT's inability to recruit a top-shelf running back over the course of the past few years have been paramount to the demise of the running game. While the offensive line has been terrible, Dooley has placed most of the blame on runners' lack of vision and inability to hit the holes. This is by no means a knock on Marlin Lane or Raijon Neal, who could become quality running backs, but when other SEC teams have Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Marcus Lattimore, Michael Dyer, Isaiah Crowell, etc., the Vols can't boast anybody like that.
Enter Graham. He is credited for being five-star Lattimore's lead recruiter in 2010, and everybody in the country wanted him. Lattimore spoke highly of Graham during his recruitment and cited him as being a big reason why he stayed home. He was responsible for two three-star commits and a two-star commit according to Rivals that year, but he mostly worked Lattimore.
Last year, Graham was the lead recruiter for four three-star players. This season, the Gamecocks have trusted him with more high-profile players, and he has gotten results. He's the lead guy on four-star offensive tackle commit Brock Stadnik and highly-recruited four-star Gamecocks commit Jody Fuller. More importantly, he is recruiting three high-profile Vols targets. Florida five-star offensive tackle commitment D.J. Humphries chose the Gators over UT and USC, and Graham was his lead recruiter. Humphries has cited his relationship with Graham as being the main reason for his consideration of Carolina. Also, four-star outside linebacker Nick Dawson is being recruited by him.
Most importantly, Graham was recruiting five-star running back Keith Marshall, who recently told Scout.com that his interest in South Carolian stemmed from his relationship with Graham. Marshall ultimately chose Georgia over Clemson today, and given that he's an early enrollee, it seems a long-shot that the Vols can get in on that one. But Volquest.com has reported today that Graham was in Murfreesboro running back I'Tavius Mathers' home Sunday night and is trying to get him to become a Vol. Also, Josh Ward tweeted today that Graham has also already contacted UT top RB target Mike Davis on the Vols' behalf. Don't think the Vols won't have Graham out there hitting up all the running back targets, trying to get a commitment from a marquee name, especially after UT parted ways with Imani Cross.
South Carolina fans on message boards already are talking about what a big recruiting blow this loss is, especially considering Graham had developed solid relationships with 2013 kids in North and South Carolina, where he'll primarily recruit [most likely] for the Vols.
- He's a Vols legend. Let's face it -- that's a great thing. I know we were all excited about Dooley hiring old buddy Chuck Smith -- another UT legend -- and that blew up in our faces, but this is different. We've established that Graham is a good coach and recruiter. More importantly, the reason why this is so important right now is because of the state the program is in. We don't have Phillip Fulmer or Johnny Majors coaching at UT anymore. There is no John Chavis or David Cutcliffe or Randy Sanders -- guys who have been around the program or were longtime Vols.
I feel like we lost sight a little of what made us great, what made us tick, what made everybody associated with that program proud to be Tennessee Vols. Graham can bring that back. He can 'rah-rah' and talk about bleeding, sweating, crying for Tennessee without it coming out as preachy or overblown because he's got the coaching/motivating chops behind it.
A week or so back, I wrote a column about how former players coming out and trashing Dooley or voicing their displeasure was not good for the fragile state of the program right now. Some former players took offense to that and let me know about it. A concern that was echoed among them all was that Dooley has not done a great job as an ambassador for the program as far as reaching back and making those players through the years feel welcome or like they're a part of his program. This is the ultimate olive branch, hiring "one of us" to help lead a position that has been an embarrassment recently. While Graham won't be calling any of the PR shots most likely, it can't hurt to have him around to help bridge that divide between the Vols of the past and the players and regime over there now.
In the court of public opinion, those players' voices mean a lot more than yours or mine. When they talk, people listen. Had Dooley made another hire that perhaps wasn't a slam dunk rather than hiring Graham, the grumbling may have gotten louder. Especially considering Tee Martin's name has been buzzed around the program, too. We all want Dooley to hire the best coaches, but when you consider Graham could very well be one of the best coaches out there that the Vols could snag, getting him perhaps squelched an outcry from alumni looking for anything to gripe about before it started. This was positive on pretty much all fronts -- getting a great coach who is a good recruiter and making everybody happy in the process.
- He wants to be here. We discussed that before a little bit above, but isn't it nice to have a short coaching search where one of the top targets is actually jumping through hoops to get here? This is not a knock on Dooley, but we all know he wasn't the first choice to be head coach two years ago. Justin Wilcox was down the list as well. There have been a bunch of "huh?" hires for position coaches, but it seems Graham -- and if they decide to call him, Tee Martin -- would crawl on broken glass to get back to Knoxville to try to help bring us out of the hole we're currently in. I love that. I want a man I cheered for as a kid who knows what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer champion to be a coach on my football team. And he wants to be a coach for my football team. It doesn't get any better than that.
- Nobody can dispute the validity of this hire. That seems to be such a trivial thing. [Do you actually think Dooley loses sleep over making hires that the media doesn't like? No way.] But, given these trying times, times where every little rumor and every step is magnified and scrutinized, it's great to be able to close the deal on a universally terrific hire. Dooley did that today.
- It weakens a division foe. Can South Carolina go out and get a marquee running backs coach to replace Graham? Of course it can with Lattimore standing there waiting. But taking Graham spins the Gamecocks' recruiting a little into turmoil, it makes them have to scramble to replace him and it opens the possibility that whomever they get won't be a great fit for their offense. We know all about that, don't we? We get stronger, and they go searching. You have to like that. It's also nice shoving it to Spurrier a bit.
The bottom line is Dooley got this one right. The Vols needed a running backs coach moving forward, and they went out and got a top-notch candidate with an orange-and-white pedigree who can do it all when it comes to coaching. After a season of disappointment has culminated with the past week of embarrassment and subsequent soap opera-level turmoil, it's good to feel good. And this is great news.