NASHVILLE — Several Tennessee assistant coaches were relaxing in the back of their chartered bus outside the downtown Hilton, trading laughs as they reviewed their performances at the podium on Thursday.
There was one thing on which they agreed: Running backs coach Jay Graham was stealing the show.
"Jay needs to go last," offensive line coach Don Mahoney joked after wrapping up the Nashville appearance.
Mahoney followed Graham in each of the three stops on Thursday, which means he had to come after three standing ovations. It was a tough act to follow.
In a staff that includes seven coaches with ties to Jones from Cincinnati, Central Michigan or both, Graham is the lone holdover from the 2012 staff. He's also a decorated former UT player who took a significant career risk when he joined Derek Dooley's staff before the 2012 season, both of which have endeared him to fans.
Graham was retained — more accurately "rehired," Jones says — in the same role on the new staff, and he's played an important role in recruiting during the past two months.
All that played a role in the standing ovations he received in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville on Thursday, prompting his new colleagues to give him a hard-time about his popularity.
"I'm going to get a standing ovation one of these days," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen told the crowd in Knoxville on the final stop of the night. A few fans obliged with cheers.
Graham came to UT from North Carolina two decades ago, lured by an official visit that included, as he recalls, a trip to the dollar theater to see Dracula and a meal that consisted of 39-cent soft tacos.
"I committed three days later," Graham said.
Graham's sister Kathy Roulhac is the head volleyball coach at Tennessee State in Nashville, and his mother also lives in the city.
"My momma's made me promise that every time I'm in Nashville, I stop by to give her a hug," Graham said as he turned to Jones. "Coach, I hope we can stop that bus."
The bus never stopped on the ride back to the Nashville airport, but all jokes aside, family matters weighed heavily on the staff on Thursday.
The recruiting tour on Thursday was the last work day before Jones released the staff for a three-day weekend, their first break of any kind since Christmas. Coaches exhausted by the recruiting blitz were eager to see their families for the first time in months.
Graham spent time on the phone with his wife, who was shepherding his four young children through Disney World. While Azzanni is reconnecting with his kids, Graham will be in Orlando, although he said he's not sure chasing his kids through a theme park is much of a vacation.
"They're pretty wild," he said. "Mickey better watch out."