In a coaching career that spans fewer than 10 years, new Tennessee cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley already has faced a handful of decisions that have seemingly put his loyalty to the test.
After his fourth year as a defensive backs coach at Huntingdon College, a Division III school in Montgomery, Ala., Ansley had the chance to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama as a graduate assistant. Just months removed from getting married and buying a house, Ansley, who grew up less than 15 minutes from Huntingdon, didn't feel right about an opportunity few coaches at that level ever sniff.
So, he turned it down.
"From what we had been through at Huntingdon, I think he felt loyal to us," said Mike Rader, the new head coach at Maryville College who coached alongside Ansley at Huntingdon. "This goes back to the character he has."
That opportunity resurfaced one year later. Again, Alabama wanted him.
"I looked at him and said, 'Brother, these opportunities don't come around very often,' " Rader said, "and you've got it twice."
Two years and a few months later, Ansley, at Central Florida with his first full-time, Division I coaching gig, had a similar dilemma on his hands. He was happy with his new position as defensive backs coach under Knights coach George O'Leary, but new UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who mentored him during his two years with the Crimson Tide, wanted him on the Vols' staff.
This time, Ansley couldn't afford to wait for an SEC opportunity to pop up a second time. Two months after leaving Alabama before its national championship game victory to join O'Leary's staff, Ansley had to say another tough goodbye.
"There's no perfect science as a young guy taking a job, his first major job, and leaving in a matter of a couple of months," Ansley said. "It came down to it where I had to make the best decision for my family and career, and that's UT."
At 31, Ansley is the youngest member of Derek Dooley's staff by five years. His experience as an on-the-road recruiter in Division I is as long as his stint with the Knights.
On the surface, it's all seemed to come so easy for Ansley, a former interception machine at Troy. But that interpretation was slammed down quickly by someone like Rader, who watched Ansley make the most out of the minimum resources provided by a burgeoning Division III program.
"We all wore a lot of hats and were exposed to a lot of different things," Rader said. "I told him when he got that, I said I know you're going to be successful, I know what you bring to the table. You just have to go and show people what you can do. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before he had an opportunity."
Rader first met Ansley at Troy. Rader, just removed from his playing career at East Tennessee State, was a graduate assistant and Ansley was a junior.
The next year, Rader was the wide receivers coach at Huntingdon, a small liberal arts college far better known for its picturesque campus than its football program. When an opening to coach defensive backs emerged, Rader made Ansley his first recommendation.
"He was always a student of the game," Rader said. "We all knew him personally and knew what he brought to the table. We knew if we could get this guy, we'd be getting a steal."
Unable to provide athletes with athletic scholarships, Ansley was immediately challenged on the recruiting trail. Outside-the-box thinking was mandatory while creating strong relationships with the players and their respective families was even more paramount than it is in the cutthroat SEC, Rader said.
"I know how he attacked recruiting when we first hired him at Huntingdon," Rader said. "I know he'll do the same at the SEC level."
Ansley, a Tallassee, Ala., native, already has recruiting ties in Alabama and Florida. He'll also work some areas in Atlanta, recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph said.
"Once he understands how we recruit Tennessee, he'll be fine," Joseph said. "The first thing is the willingness and I think he has the willingness to learn just like I want to learn as much about this system we're going to put in on defense from him."
Rader recalled all the 15-hour days he pulled with Ansley, grinding times that pitted the two against each other in a friendly competition for who could lure the best recruits. That only brought the two closer together.
When there was time away from work, they would go on double dates together with their respective spouses. It's something neither has had much time for now that they've converged on the Knoxville area, but something that will happen one of these days, weeks or months, Rader said.
"It was a great competition and what really turned out to be a great friendship," Rader said. "I can call him one of my close friends."