In The War Room, It's All About Love

Feb. 8, 2013

By Nick Carner

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There are days and days of non-stop, no-holds-barred knockdown, drag-out recruiting. There are locks and leans; soft verbals, flips and silent commits. Hours upon hours of evaluations, numerous phone calls, and countless text messages, all come down to this.

It's 2013 and really the only day of the year when people use the fac-sim-ile machine.

It's college football's National Signing Day, of course.

For Tennessee and first-year head coach Butch Jones, there's a delicious intensity in the air. It's a shade before 7 a.m. and the Vols are continuing a new chapter in the history of Tennessee football. For a mere 31 days, the staff has been working with ferocious, unremitting vigor to mold, trim, bolster and secure UT's 2013 recruiting class.

"We were extremely selective in this process," Jones said. "This is our third time doing this. I think a lot of times when you're late; you tend to offer scholarships that you look back and wish you had kept. We were extremely selective in the process. We had a formula for the type of player that we need to attract here in Knoxville. I think we were able to attract high-level character players, and that was the foundation. A lot of coaches say it, but we're going to live it every day in our football program. It stems with a passion for a college degree and a family background."

The family aspect is something Jones has stressed to the public repeatedly since his hiring; in both reuniting the Volunteer family and providing a family atmosphere for the players. But behind closed doors, inside the `war room,' Jones is talking the talk and walking the walk, at the same time.

"Is the fax machine on?" Jones says, only half-kidding. His question is answered shortly after, as A.J. Branisel is the first prospect to sign his papers and send them in. In a flash, Jones has Branisel on the phone.

"A.J... Welcome to the family," Jones said. "Now you better start working. You're a part of a small fraternity and brotherhood. We love ya, A.J." The phone then passes through coach Mark Elder's and coach Mike Bajakian's hands before the call is ended.

The top floor of the spanking-new training facility, the soft, fluorescent lights cast a glare against the glistening, Dry Erase-board walls. Recruit's names, positions and pictures fill the walls in neat and organized columns, making up the coaching staff's `big board.'

The long, rectangular-shaped tables inside the room are occupied by coaches, administrators and interns. Cell phones and laptops litter the landscape.

The humm, buzz and whine of the fax machine begins to roll again. This time, it's MarQuez North, followed intermittently by Ryan Jenkins, Riley Ferguson and two local kids--Josh Smith and Malik Foreman. Each of the players' talk with a coach, and while personalized, contain a uniform message:

Welcome to the family. And we love ya.

Jay Graham then gets his running back in Jabo Lee. After Lee's phone call, Jones says, with a tenuous grin, "We got a running back, now we need some lineman!"

Then, right on cue, the fax machine begins to hum away again. First Dylan Weisman, then Austin Sanders.

Each of the guys gets an "I love ya," from at least one, if not multiple coaches before they get off the phone.

There are occasional lulls in the fax machine's whining, as the half-empty coffee cups are refilled while staff members snack on Panera Bread bagels. During the downtimes the coaches stay lighthearted, talking about things other than football, like funny movies. Bajakian had apparently never seen "Friday" and a few of the quality control staff give him a hard time about it.

"It's Friday and you ain't got no job..." one assistant mimics, as the rest chuckle at the familiar movie quote.

But while there are some laughs, it's still business time. We're here for the culmination of lots of hard work.

Jaylen Miller's and Cameron Sutton's papers come through and both are met with resounding applause. Jones asks Miller if he's wearing orange, informing Miller that he was watching his highlight tape as they spoke.

"That's two in a row for you, Jancek!" Jones said, happily.

With Sutton, all you had to do was listen to Coach Martinez's voice to understand he's seriously excited about Sutton's potential.

"We know what we got, Cam," Martinez said. "I can't tell you how excited I am, we love ya, buddy."

Without the droning telefax, occasionally a quiet rap song escapes an iPad. The music distorts the silence as it provides the soundtracks for several 2014 recruiting highlight films. Even the palpable tune "Call Me Maybe" rings out, as some kid got clever with the choice of music for his highlight tape.

At some point later in the morning, as the incoming pages start to become more infrequent, recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni leans over to a member of the recruiting staff, who has been retrieving many of the faxes as they arrive to show her something on his phone. Azzanni's wife sent him a picture of his little girls fixated in front of a computer screen at their soon-to-be former home in Wiscosnin. They're locked into the' War Room cam, just waiting to catch a glimpse of daddy, whom they haven't seen in quite some time.

With all the pomp, hoopla and hubbub that surrounds National Signing Day in today's world wrought with various social medias and a 24-hour news cycle, this sort of detail is often lost in the shuffle.

Coach Jones said multiple times recruiting is all about relationships. But it's not just coaches' relationships with the players. It's important to remember the incredible amount of commitment and hard work it takes from several different parties to ensure a successful signing day.

"A lot of things go into it, including our coaches' wives," Jones said. "The many trips all over the country to be involved in the recruiting weekends, the ice storms, all the things of getting them to Knoxville. Also the people in the university community, starting with Dave Hart to the many professors and administrative staff; the academic support services. They all do a tremendous job here at Tennessee."

In the midst of the hoopla, Azzanni eagerly waves to the camera stationed in the corner making his daughters' day.

It's all about the love.





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