Stars don't matter. Character does.
That's a synopsis of Tennessee's recruiting philosophy under first-year coach Derek Dooley. If you want more details, recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph Jr. can fill you in.
"As long as we've been together, I guess you can say we drink from the same water," said Joseph, who was an assistant coach under Dooley for three years at Louisiana Tech.
As familiar as the recruiting game plan might be to Dooley and Joseph, it's altogether foreign to UT fans, who have become accustomed to hanging on the words of recruiting services. And those much-publicized evaluations can be summed up with one- or five-star critiques.
"We don't bring up stars," Joseph said. "We let the tape and our eyes speak for themselves. A lot of great players don't have a lot of stars. I will say this: The guys we have committed and will get committed will be four- and five-star people.
"It's our job as coaches to get those four- and five-star people and get this program to compete for SEC titles. I think fans deserve to have this program where it needs to be. That's at the top of the SEC."
Lifting a program to the heights of Alabama and Florida sounds challenging enough, especially since the Vols have lost at least six games in three of the last five seasons. Playing catchup to those programs seems even more daunting if you're eliminating prospects based on anything, character included.
Certainly, there's a risk in setting standards that prevent you from acquiring a talented player. But based on UT's past recruiting, there's also a risk in setting your standards too low while placing talent above everything else - even if you get a thumbs up from recruiting services.
For example, take UT's 2009 class, which was assembled by former coach Phillip Fulmer and his successor, Lane Kiffin.
Seven players from that class have been in trouble before the start of their second year of college; three of them are no longer on the team following arrests; the status of several others is uncertain.
So the timing has never been better for a UT coach to say - as Dooley has repeatedly - how much character matters on a team and in a program. I believe he's committed to that. But how do you judge character in the recruiting process when NCAA rules are so restrictive in regard to coach-player contact?
"It's like you are an investigator, a private eye," Joseph said. "The more people you talk to, the better you know a kid."
Those talks won't be limited to family and coaches.
"I might talk to the barber who cuts a kid's hair," Joseph said. "It boils down to how hard are you willing to work to find out information."
The fact-finding mission will intensify when a recruit is on UT's campus.
"Everybody in our organization - the strength coach, Andre Lott (UT's character education coordinator), the secretaries - will touch him," Joseph said. "Everybody will touch the kid's family. We will listen to everybody's feeling on him."
All the input and investigation provide no guarantees. And when you make a big deal out of aspiring to higher standards, you're setting yourself up for criticism. Wide receiver Da'rick Rogers, the most heralded player in Dooley's first signing class, was among the UT players supposedly involved in a barroom brawl last month, though his role has yet to be determined.
Never mind that it's an imperfect process. There's something to be said for trying to recruit good people as well as good players.
The obvious question: Can you do that and still win at the highest level?
UT fans will have to wait at least four years for the answer.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 865-342-6284 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or firstname.lastname@example.org.