Signing Day 2013: Recruiting changes coming for 2014 class
Tennessee's chartered ride is rolling through downtown Nashville on its way to the second stop of the afternoon when coach Butch Jones walks to the back of the bus where most of his assistants are gathered.
He's smiling, but he's also here to deliver a serious message.
"I want everyone to say it with me: 'VAHLS,' " he says, enunciating the "ahhhl" sound carefully. "Pretend there's an 'A' in there."
Two of Jones' assistants are from the Deep South. Most, like Jones, are from the Midwest. Some spit out the word in a way that makes it sound more like, "Vohls."
Jones returns to the front of the bus, lesson complete. Running backs coach Jay Graham and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, native southerners, are amused.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, a New Jersey native, breaks the silence: "You know what this means, don't you?"
No one answers.
"I'm never saying Vols again."
The back of the bus breaks into laughter. This is a loose, albeit extremely exhausted group.
After two months of nonstop recruiting, Jones, his nine assistant coaches, UT athletic director Dave Hart and a handful of administrative staff members spent Thursday touring Tennessee, greeting fans at post-National Signing Day "celebrations" in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.
The annual events lapsed two years ago under former coach Derek Dooley. Jones, hired by the Vols in December, agreed to bring them back.
The News Sentinel shadowed Jones and staff throughout the 15-hour journey, from the early morning takeoff to the evening finale at Neyland Stadium.
The first UT coaches and staff members start to arrive at the TACAir terminal in Knoxville at about 6 a.m. on Thursday.
Many make a beeline for the coffee machine in the corner of the room. Others pick through a bag of about 20 assorted breakfast sandwiches from McDonald's.
Assistant athletic director Jimmy Delaney hands out manila folders with itineraries for the day, information about each of the stops and details on the boosters, coaches, city officials and other people who might be there.
Jones enters about 10 minutes before takeoff. He looks groggy, but perks up quickly, exchanging warm greetings and handshakes with the first people he sees.
Then Hart hands him a cellphone. It's the donor who is providing the three jets for the trip. Jones talks to him for several minutes, ending with "When you get back into town, let's do lunch."
UT videographers are on hand, as they are for just about every public or semi-public trip that Jones makes. They debate whether to attach a wireless microphone to the coach now, or wait until the plane lands in Memphis.
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind either way," says Jimmy Stanton, the associate AD in charge of communications.
Jones will spend about four hours on stage in front of hundreds of people during Thursday's trip, but even when he steps off the dais, he's not really offstage. The UT cameras are ubiquitous, filming, recording or tweeting every move he makes. So when the coach walks to the back of the bus to banter with his assistants, it's sometimes hard to tell if you've just witnessed a spontaneous and authentic moment of levity or a plot device for the next UT webcast. Such is the nature of the celebrity CEO coach.
On the small plane that will take Jones to Memphis, the coach sits next to Hart. He opens his manila folder, thicker than the one given to the assistants, and starts reading through the notes.
Jones goes over a few names, checking with Hart to ensure he's pronouncing Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell's name correctly. Then Jones reviews his speech and his talking points, scribbling notes on the margins of the page.
Satisfied he's ready for the Memphis meeting, Jones sets the folder at his feet and leans his head back. As the sunrise starts to clear away the early-morning haze, Jones closes his eyes for a few moments of rest.
It's been a long two months, and it's going to be a long day.
The chartered bus from Memphis International Airport to the Hilton on the east side of town is escorted by at least a half-dozen sheriff's deputies on motorcycles, which seems excessive but proves to be helpful in battling rush-hour traffic.
The motorcycle escorts also are keeping a brisk pace. "The flight here was a lot safer," remarks one of the pilots, as the bus bounces through an intersection.
Once at the hotel, Jones stops to visit with the officers (two are wearing UT hats; another is puffing a cigarette). Jones' late father was police chief in Saugatuck, Mich., and those small-town roots help him connect with others, including — it turns out — Memphis prospect Jason Carr's dad, who works for the Memphis police.
At the Memphis event, the first of the day, the coaches try out some of their laugh lines. The ones that draw the best reaction will be repeated over and over again.
The clear winner comes when offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian talks about how his wife is expecting a baby and he will soon have three children younger than 3 years old.
"He's got too much time on his hands!" Jones shouts as Bajakian tells the story, drawing huge laughs from the crowd. The joke was a winner in Nashville and Knoxville, too.
Later, when Bajakian rambles, Jones interrupts, "Just remember that we have eight other coaches who need to speak!"
When the coaches climb back onto the bus, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is no longer the only staff member lacking orange in his wardrobe.
"Thig talked himself into a tie," said another assistant shaking his head. "Someone just gave it to him."
As always, Jones sits at the front of the bus, while the assistants shoot the breeze in the back. The stories quickly turn to recruiting.
On his first recruiting trip to New Jersey, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez didn't know state law required an attendant to pump gas. Martinez was in a rush to catch a flight and was baffled by the man who insisted that he get back in his car when he tried to fill his own tank.
Bajakian nods his head knowingly as other coaches tease him about his home state, including its notoriously rude toll-takers.
The conversation swings to toll-road stories. Graham says he was recruiting in Florida when he realized he didn't have exact change, as required. Rather than just drive through the toll, he hopped out of his car and started asking people behind him for a quarter.
"I was holding the entire line hostage until I got that quarter," he says with a laugh.
Martinez, a baseball fan, turns the conversation to baseball. Greatest baseball brawl? Everyone agrees it was when Robin Ventura charged the mound on Nolan Ryan.
Talk of tough players turns to Pete Rose, and Martinez starts to tell the story of meeting Rose on a golf course while he was coaching the Boca Raton High School girls golf team in the late 1980s. Before he can continue, he's interrupted — "Wait, you coached girls golf?"
"Sure," replied Martinez, a former defensive back at Miami (Fla.) who even now, at 49, looks athletic enough to chase down a running back. "You just organize everything. In golf, they all have their own coach, anyway."
Martinez hasn't finished his Pete Rose story, but the bus has arrived at the airport, and it's time to go to Nashville.
At every spare moment, the coaches' cellphones come out, and fingers glide down the glass screens, checking for new messages or tweets or Facebook updates. But while texting is routine for even the most old-school coach, using Twitter is a newer development.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni is one of the program's most prolific tweeters, making more than 1,000 updates on his account. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling, seated beside him on the plane to Nashville, has only five tweets.
But Stripling wants to learn more, and much of the conversation on this leg of the trip is about Twitter.
Azzanni shows him how to find college football and recruiting news to follow, and Stripling adds ESPN and Sports Illustrated to his list.
Then Stripling types out a message and hands his phone over to Azzanni. "It's OK to tweet about a signee, right?" he asks.
"Absolutely," Azzanni replies. "This looks good."
"What do I put at the end of it — a hash-mark?"
Azzanni adds a hashtag symbol (#) and then hands the phone back to Stripling, who hits send: "Great stop in Memphis this am. Everyone proud of local Vol signee Jason Carr. #VFL"
Then Azzanni turns to tight ends coach Mark Elder seated in front of him. Elder's account has just over 10,000 followers. Azzanni's has just under 10,000.
"We're going to change this," Azzanni says.
"@UTCoachElder just went over 10k followers help me catch up vol nation!" he writes.
(He hits the 10,000 mark a few hours later).
Meanwhile, Elder is downing an energy drink, as the midpoint of the daylong tour approaches.
"Nothing like a lukewarm Monster," someone jokes.
Jones has talked about his need for caffeine in the past, but on the flight he chooses a bottled water. If he downs shots of Red Bull or Five-Hour Energy during the day, he does so discretely.
Other coaches find sustenance where they can get it, as there was little time to grab food in Memphis. Graham munches on M&M's that were in the refreshment stand in the plane.
"Do you know how long those have been there?" one of the coaches asks.
"Nope," Graham replies, popping another candy in his mouth.
The fans in Memphis and Nashville are almost unanimously enthusiastic, but there are a few exceptions.
When offensive line coach Don Mahoney extends his hand to greet a fan in Nashville, the fan instead responds a curt demand — better tackling on defense.
One man in Memphis, seemingly incapable of whispering, had loud and sarcastic interjections after several of Jones' lines.
When Jones introduced Hart, as he did on all three stops, as the "best director of athletics in the nation," the man commented loudly just as the applause was dying down, "'IT NEVER HURTS TO SUCK UP TO YOUR BOSS, DOES IT?"
Then there was the fan who emailed several UT development officials and local media members on Friday morning. Among his list of angry complaints? Coaches who pronounced Vols like "Voles."
Thigpen, who speaks in a rich Southern drawl, couldn't help but tease his new colleagues.
Turning to Jones, he said, "I'm ALL VOL, Coach."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at http://twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.