“Go West” should be one of the recruiting slogans for Tennessee football. And I’m not referring to West Tennessee.
Oh, I believe in new coach Butch Jones’ plan to make in-state players a higher priority. But I also believe in the research of colleague Evan Woodbery, who recently pointed out UT’s high ratio for success in recruiting California the past 20 years. So why not expand on it?
Never mind the distance. Tennessee has one of the biggest recruiting budgets in the country. It can spare the fare.
When you consider the competition, it’s worth the investment.
Everywhere Tennessee turns in the Southeast, it’s running into flourishing programs: Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, even Ole Miss now.
Beating other SEC schools in recruiting is as difficult as beating them on the field, where Tennessee’s conference record the last five years is 12-28.
California is a different ballgame. There, you’re competing with Pac-10 schools. There, you would stand out.
Forget the distance in miles. The SEC puts players closer to the NFL no matter where they call home.
More than half of the first-round picks in the next draft could come from SEC schools. That’s more appealing than California weather for a recruit with pro aspirations.
Something else in UT’s favor: Californians seem to like East Tennessee.
Tennessee has 17 student-athletes from California on its current sports rosters. Its nationally acclaimed softball program has become California East under co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly.
“We’ve never had a California kid go home,” Ralph Weekly said. “We had one we asked to leave (for disciplinary reasons) and one left because she was injured. But none that ever just quit the program.
“And a lot of them stay here.”
Senior third baseman Raven Chavanne of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is in no hurry to leave. Although she will graduate this spring, she plans to stay at least another year.
Chavanne and junior shortstop Madison Shipman, who’s from Valencia, Calif., both chose UT because of the coaches. If the Weeklys had set up shop in a Kansas cornfield, Chavanne and Shipman might have been just as likely to join them.
But once here, both have found attractions beyond softball. And they think other California student-athletes would, too.
“You can’t experience a college town in California,” Chavanne said. “It’s impossible.”
The college atmosphere won over Shipman right away. She’s a football fan, and it didn’t take her long to figure out that football matters a lot more in the Southeast than it does in California.
“I came out here and it was just a river of orange all over the place,” she said. “Football is a way of life.”
If Knoxville can wow a college football fan, imagine what it could do for a prospective college football player.
It won over Casey Clausen, who left California for UT in 2000. He was Tennessee’s starting quarterback for four seasons. His quarterbacking brother, Rick, helped UT win the SEC East in 2004. Tyler Bray, another California quarterback, is now off to the NFL after three seasons with the Vols.
Tennessee has a history of success with California players. It should take advantage of that.
And establish itself as the best SEC alternative on the West Coast.