Nearly 20 years ago, Phillip Fulmer was putting the finishing touches on the first class that he had built from start to finish as football coach at Tennessee. The group of players he signed in February 1994, headlined by quarterback Peyton Manning, was touted as the best in the nation.
"Other schools did well, of course, but no one else was in Tennessee's league," wrote the Charlotte Observer.
Nearly the entire class would letter. Five would earn All-SEC honors. Seven would be selected in the NFL draft. The group would lead the Vols to the SEC title in 1997, lay the groundwork for the national title a year later and play a part in one of the most dominant runs of the 1990s.
In four days, Butch Jones will sign his first class at Tennessee, and although the Vols hope to land some high-profile targets, it won't be ranked among the best in the nation — or even close to it. Three consecutive losing seasons and three coaching changes in just more than four years have taken their toll on a program that once competed with anyone on the recruiting trail.
So how does Tennessee get back to the days when elite recruiting classes were routine? It's one thing to talk about how a new coach must elevate the level of recruiting; it's another to determine how to do it.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart wanted some answers to provide to prospective candidates, so last November he asked senior associate AD David Blackburn to review the football program, top to bottom, from 20 years ago to the present.
"Let's look at what happened and do an internal, honest assessment A to Z," Hart said. "Let's look at recruiting. Did we get away from areas we were successful?"
UT shared some of the study's conclusions with the News Sentinel, but we wanted to replicate the data for ourselves.
The News Sentinel created a database of every player signed by the Vols since 1994 — 434 players from 28 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. We looked at the 19 signing classes that span the coaching tenures of Fulmer, Lane Kiffin and, most recently, Derek Dooley.
Like Hart, we wanted to determine what had changed and what could be fixed, particularly with a new coaching staff starting from a clean slate.
"It was a very interesting and revealing picture," Hart said.
Jones got the study in a binder given him by Hart and Blackburn.
In-state prospects signed by Tennessee, 1994-present
For Jones and the two administrators, the report validated what they had long thought: Tennessee is not bereft of talent, and in fact the Vols ignore their home state at their own peril.
"I think it just solidified my thoughts moreso than anything," Jones said of the study. "I've always really respected the high school football that's been played here in Tennessee."
Both Jones and Hart have hammered home that theme at every opportunity during a frantic recruiting season that began when Jones was hired Dec. 7.
"This program was built with in-state players," Hart said. "We do need to put borders around our state again. We do need to develop those relationships again and get back to keeping those kids at the flagship institution, the University of Tennessee."
Conclusions are similar
The News Sentinel's version of the data doesn't match UT's study exactly, even though we both started our timeline in 1994, which was Fulmer's first full year signing a class with his imprint and also Blackburn's first year as a football staff member.
Although the sample size of 434 players was large, many of the individual geographic areas had smaller numbers, so even one minor difference in methodology could shift the percentages dramatically.
UT recruiting by geography, year-by-year
UT also was cautious about sharing conclusions that might reflect negatively on important geographic regions.
"Make sure you emphasize that they're all important to us," Blackburn said.
Even so, most of our overarching conclusions were similar: The Carolinas are a little-recognized historic strength; the program has an impressive track record of luring top players from California; and the state of Tennessee has produced an impressive crop of players, including 19 NFL draft picks in a 14-year span.
But there were cautionary tales, too.
Tennessee's increased reliance on Florida since 2005 has paid few dividends, compared to other states.
And while East Tennessee and West Tennessee have produced more NFL talent than the Middle section of the state, those areas also have far higher wash-out rates, indicating that coaches must constantly weigh the risks and rewards of even local recruits.
Finally, the numbers show signing classes battered by attrition from the string of coaching changes that began when Fulmer was fired in 2008.
Photo by KNS Archive, Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
"When we were rolling in the 1990s, a lot of those programs were down, which meant we could go into their backyard to recruit," Hart said. "They were rotating coaches, for the most part. Now they've acquired what we want: They've acquired stability."
Jones has a map
Jones and his assistant coaches, most of whom have been together for years, offer that promise of stability. And by all accounts, Jones has already started the kind of relationship-building that will pay off in 2014, when he signs his first class that is not hurriedly thrown together during a coaching change.
What can we expect from Jones as a recruiter? He'll certainly use his Midwestern roots for top prospects in familiar haunts like Ohio and Michigan. He also has experience recruiting Florida and Tennessee, which was only a few hours away from his old home base in Cincinnati. In an interview with the News Sentinel in December, Jones also mentioned Atlanta and the Carolinas as being important points of emphasis.
"But first and foremost, it's going to start with Tennessee," he said.
For as interesting as some of the points of data in the study are, the numbers don't tell the full story. Tennessee's success hinges on the quality of the recruits — their ability more so than their hometown.
Up until the last decade, the Vols were able to occasionally sneak into places like Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio or Texas and steal a top prospect. Many of those sources have dried up, and when Tennessee does leave its home base, its forced to compete for prospects that other teams have already passed on.
"In some cases, maybe we weren't getting the elite players from those states. In other cases, maybe we drifted away from those areas," Hart said.
Jones' job is to go find the elite recruits that used to beat down Tennessee's door.
This study gives him a map to get there.
About this project
News Sentinel reporter Evan Woodbery used players taken from Tennessee’s official National Signing Day releases. When a player signed more than once — for example, failed to qualify one year and re-signed the next — the latest year was counted. For determining letterman status, the News Sentinel used Tennessee’s official records. All-SEC status was for first-team selection only, also using records maintained by UT. The News Sentinel maintained separate distinctions for those who were selected in the NFL draft (74 players) and for those who played in the NFL or were members of active roster for at least one season (99 players). Active players were not used in calculating the percentage of signees drafted or in the NFL. Some states have very small sample sizes and caution should be used before drawing conclusions.
Evan Woodbery's blog