Feb. 2, 2011
(Includes opening statement and selected portions of the question-and-answer session that followed)
"It's always exciting at the end of signing day. It's emotionally draining, too, because a lot of hard work has gone in to today everywhere across the country. I want to start by saying it's impossible to put together a quality signing class without a total team effort from so many people. Starting with, first of all, the Tennessee brand. What we're allowed to sell here is just incredible as far as our facilities, our campus, the history, the tradition, the game day experience and the fans. You walk right into that and start with a pretty amazing product. But then it really comes to come down to people. All that (the Tennessee brand) gives you a chance, but ultimately, the people make the difference. Our coaching staff has done a very diligent job over the course of the year. Our administration, our support staff, the faculty who helped us on all of our official visits, the students who bring life into the program. Everybody just pulled their weight for Tennessee and as a result, we have an outstanding class that's going to be coming in.
"Philosophically, you guys heard me a little bit last year on what I believe in recruiting. It starts with drawing a circle about three hours outside of Knoxville, then about five hours outside of Knoxville and then about seven hours outside of Knoxville, where we're trying to build a class inside-out. I think it starts with being relentless and trying to get them on campus early and often. And when they get on campus, begin to forge some real deep relationships that hopefully, over time, will make them want to be a part of the program. You look at the breakdown just from the states, we signed seven guys in the state of Tennessee. The data shows that you're never going to be able to have, at least any time soon, 15 or so guys that some of the other schools can get in-state. When you do have quality football players, which we will every year, it's very important that we get them. Two years in a row now, I've just been real pleased with the job everybody has done on our staff in getting some outstanding football players from Tennessee and that's where it starts. Certainly, when Tennessee has won in the past, it has done well in Georgia. We signed seven guys out of the state of Georgia this year, six guys out of the state of Florida -- which probably has more talent than anywhere in the country from a numbers standpoint -- and then we sprinkled it around in some of the other states. It kind of worked out how we wanted to from inside-out.
"What comes with that is minimizing risk. You all have heard me say that. With where our program is and with the numbers we were working off this year, it was extremely important to me that we bring in a group of guys without a lot of risk of leaving and of not being here. We have about five factors we look at in risk. Part of risk is not being a good enough player too. We look at size and speed at their position, which we have standards at every position on what we're looking for. We look at their position specifics, which is each skill set at whatever position they require. We look at what I call critical factors, which are kind of the intangibles of toughness, effort, discipline and passion for the game. We look at their academic makeup and we look at their character as people. You're never going to find someone that has all five. Everybody has some deficiencies somewhere. It's no different than investing your money. When you build a class, you're investing in people. It's important that we minimize the amount of risk. A couple things really stick out to me about these guys. Number one, I think this is the first time I've ever been involved where every single player who committed never flinched. They never wavered, they never got shaky, they never got confused and they never went on another trip of significance. I think that is a real testament to the quality of people we had and the type of recruiting we do. That's done for the long haul. If you look at the academic makeup of this class, they're averaging over a 3.0 (GPA) core and a 20 ACT. I know we're charged with winning games, but being able to get guys to stay the course is just as important. John (Adams) wrote a great article on the '07 class. It sums it up. It doesn't matter what you're ranking is. It only matters what those guys do over the next four years. I think only five guys out of that class played of any significance. It was very important to me that we try to get guys who four years from now, we're going to say, `You know what, that's a whole bunch of guys who had great contributions to the program.'
"You look at our needs, every position I feel like was helped with some quality size, speed, tough, outstanding players at every position and that's rare. We needed help everywhere because we lacked considerable depth. The breakdown is as good as I think you can do it with five defensive linemen and five offensive linemen. We needed to get bigger and better up front. Two linebackers, seven defensive backs, which we really needed some bodies back there. A couple of tight ends after losing Luke (Stocker). Two more wideouts, two running backs, a quarterback and an athlete. I feel good about that. We have three junior college players. I've said from the beginning that we're not going to build our program on junior college players. So when we do go after them, it's going to be at a significant position of need and they're the right kind of guys. I think the best statement about these guys is that all three of them have three years of eligibility, which is important to me because it gives them time to buy into the culture and gives them that extra year on the back end where they can really be great players.
"Everybody is certainly talking about our finish. I think we had five quality guys down the stretch in the last week, which was big for us. But sometimes we get so caught in the finish, we lose sight of some of the other guys. I'm really proud of what our coaches accomplished. I think the future is bright, but I also need to remind everybody that only time will tell what this class is. It's now our job to get them here. It's our job to coach them. It's our job to mentor them. It's our job to motivate them. It's our job to support them academically and, hopefully, they leave here doing some real special things. With that, we'll open it up."
Last year, on signing day it was almost like you were trying to temper expectations. You seem more excited about this class.
"Well, I know these guys. I had two weeks to get these other guys (last year.) I suspected we had some good ones but I didn't recruit Ja'Wuan James. I recruited James Stone but I only knew him a week. I think I have a better feel for the kind of players and the kind of people these guys are. I say that with a lot of caution because it's not an exact science. We don't know. I do think we've done a pretty good job of minimizing risk."
You've talked about the seven defensive backs and just hammering away at that position. Is that something that just kind of developed over the season as you saw the weaknesses in the defensive backfield or was that something going into this?
"It was something I saw in spring practice but I couldn't fix it right away. We didn't have any guys. We signed Brent Brewer in the summertime because we just didn't have any guys back there. We knew all along that we were going to need help and we also felt like we needed to get junior college help. We got two guys in the backend that are quality football players (Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore)."
I think there were only two guys that you signed outside of SEC states. You're doing that after a losing season and you're going head-to-head with teams that have been more successful. How significant is that to you to accomplish that?
"The first thing that becomes apparent is that it is challenging to go into other people's states when the home school is having a lot of success and it's challenging even when they're not having a lot of success. I hope people are now seeing that it's now going to be challenging to come to Tennessee and get guys. For us to survive, to be competitive and to win championships, we're going to have to do it. I think the real key is getting them up here early. Everybody was panicking back in June because we had one commitment but the way we recruit is very process-driven. We don't throw hot sauce on them on a weekend on the final weekend and try to swoop them in. That's just not my style because I don't think that stands the test of time and I don't think guys that come here with that kind of `hot sauce' on them that appeals to them are the guys that stick. I think those are the guys that get here and it's actually difficult. I think the whole key in going in those states is being very process-oriented, developing a deep relationship over time and selling what Tennessee has to sell. I think if you do that on enough players, eventually you'll get a quality class."
When you a class like the 2010 class where you had so many guys play last season, how important is it then to follow up with a class like this that also maybe has as many contributors or can fill some of the holes that you eluded to?
"Let's face it. This class is probably the most important class for me and our staff. You don't just get 10 years at these jobs so you better have a pretty good first recruiting class. Time will tell if it's good enough. You say, `Is it important?' Take this statistic and see if it is. Next year's team, 70 percent of our roster will probably be freshmen and sophomores. We're going to be one of the youngest teams in the country next year. I know that probably shocks everybody but that's the deal. This class was very important. It will be a good opportunity for a lot of these guys to be on the field early."
Much was made about Georgia's great in-state recruiting, the "dream team" that Georgia built its campaign on. We talked to a player you signed who wasn't asked to be a part of the "dream team," and maybe he thought some of the commitments to Tennessee were below the radar. How do you feel about the evaluations you did of those guys and maybe if that's true?
"Here's what I do, and this is not a disrespect to the other services that rank players, but I have a very systematic approach. Those five factors that I mentioned - that's what I do. And I watch the film. I don't evaluate with my ears, I evaluate with my eyes when it comes to a player.
"I don't know how many stars or numerical position rank - I don't know any of that when I'm watching the film in February, March and April, and then in the season. We just go through a real diligent evaluation process. If I like the guy and think he can help us, we take him. I think there was a lot of criticism early in the summertime about some of these guys, but they really performed the way I had hoped their senior year. They had phenomenal senior years.
"I trust our process. I do. We're going to make mistakes, but we continue to learn from them. I keep all our sheets on our guys and review them in two years and three years to see what did we hit on, what did we miss on. You've got to constantly grow as an evaluator, but I think the mistake you make is when you stray away from what you believe and what you see. You've just got to trust. If this thing doesn't work out, I can go to bed and say, `Hey, my guys didn't pan out;' instead of saying, `I shouldn't have listed to whomever.'
"And let me back up, and I mean this, I keep saying minimizing risk. I'm going to address the whole rankings and services and all that because it's such a big thing and that's OK. But I do believe that most of those guys, and I don't want to speak for them, are strictly evaluating the size, speed and talent level of the player, and that's fair. They're probably home-running it, but there are a lot of factors that go into that talented player can fit in your program and be a good player over the next four years.
"So in defense of the rankings - I'm defending the rankings right now, because I don't think they hold themselves out to say, `We're evaluating their academics, we're evaluating their character.' That's not what they do. They evaluate just straight size, speed and athleticism of a player. What I'm saying is I don't think they're wrong. What I have to do is evaluate more than that to determine whether they fit for our program or whether they will stay with us and be the right fit for our systems. Does that make sense?
"So I'm not really beating up the rankings. I think they are looking at something differently that what I have to look at. That's why sometimes it can appear we take under-the-radar guys and sometimes we are begging for the guys who the services think are phenomenal players, because they fit too. That's why it's never 100 percent either way. Everybody makes mistakes; it's a hard deal evaluating players."
You touched on being able to hang on to everybody and you lose sight of that by the way you closed, but how important is that and how much of that is about relationships and not missing on those early evaluations?
"I think it was two things. I think it was the great job our coaching staff did with the relationships but I also think it speaks for the quality of the character of the guys who were committed. Because when they said, `I'm coming,' they were men of their word. And I'm going to tell you that means a lot to me. Is that big? Yeah. "I sat there for the last two weeks of January going, `Something's happening, guys, and we're missing it. Who's talking to somebody? Who's on this? Where's a guy going? My guy's fine. My guy's fine. He's good.' It's never happened; it was eerily silent Sunday night after the last weekend. It put a pit in my stomach because it was too good."
Would you say that was part of your evaluation process that those kids, those families, were guys who would go the distance?
"That's what I'm saying about those five criteria. That was part of it."
Every year, Tennessee has key matchups against teams like Florida, Alabama and out-of-conference games like Oregon. Those are big opportunities for guys to shine on national television. Does that ever come into play in recruiting?
"Most of the people we recruit against have the same exposure we have, and we're playing the same teams. When we're recruiting a guy against one of our SEC East opponents, it's hard for me to sell that we're on TV all the time because so are they. I think what that does is it gets us in the door with some of these really good players. The kids know. I think the SEC, the success this league has had speaks volumes. I think it did help us on some guys when we were recruiting out of conference."
A little bit more on the Vol for Life Program. Obviously, you had envisioned it being a big part but did it take off maybe a little quicker than you even thought of, and how valuable is it to have a former Vol heading it up in Andre Lott?
"I had hoped it would help us. There are two sides to the program. One is I want to help them and feel a responsibility to help them, but you want it to help you recruit guys too. Let's face it, if you're a young man and that appeals to you, what does it say about your character.
"So again, it goes back to minimizing risk. By me selling that program, if that doesn't interest a guy, I don't care how good he is, I probably won't enjoy coaching him. So maybe he should go somewhere else. That's another way to minimize risk by what you sell. If I only sold the NFL, there are a lot of other issues when they come on campus that I'm going to have to deal with that may not go so well. When you sell the right stuff, it allows me to know when they come here, everybody understands what I stand for, they understand what the expectations are and, hopefully, that will minimize a lot of the attrition."
With a full year recruiting in the SEC and at Tennessee, what did you learn about that and how much has that helped you shape what you do moving forward?
"I think it validated a lot of things I suspected. It is unique because you have to go to some many different places. It makes your six weeks on the road probably a little more grueling than some of the other schools that can just pop over on an hour drive and hit three guys. It has its challenges but I also believe it really brings a unique and special opportunity for our players who come here. I believe in my heart that our lettermen have as incredible a passion for this school as any program in the country. I think a part of that is because they come from so many different areas. They unpack their bags, they are forced to forge new relationships and I think it's a great selling point."
How much has it helped you to take your background in the South, familiarity with this culture and knowledge of the SEC - how much does that help you in recruiting?
"I think it helps because it's different. Recruiting in this league is very different than in other parts of the country. I think anybody who has been in other parts of the country who comes into it will tell you, `Wow, this is different.' It doesn't mean it's anything illegal, I'm not saying that. It's just different. I had been in it for awhile, and then at Louisiana Tech I was still in the same demographic makeup with the people and the cultures."