You can’t fully appreciate Jay Graham’s departure from Tennessee without recalling his arrival.
He left a secure job at South Carolina in December of 2011 for one of the most insecure positions in college football. The Vols had suffered back-to-back losing seasons under former coach Derek Dooley, whose assistant coaches were fleeing the premises as though a crime had been committed.
But in came Graham, a former UT running back who seemingly couldn’t resist the lure of his alma mater, even though it meant leaving SEC coaching legend Steve Spurrier for a coach who had just lost to Kentucky.
UT fans were ecstatic. One of their own was coming home when home didn’t look all that appealing to an objective eye.
Graham wasn’t just the new running backs coach. He was a flicker of hope for a program where the longest lines formed below the exit sign. Head coaches left. Players left. Assistant coaches came and went so fast that even diehard fans couldn’t identify them in a lineup.
Now, Graham is gone, too. He was hired Monday as an assistant coach on coach Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State staff.
College programs rarely tilt over the arrival or departure of a running backs coach. But Graham was more than a running backs coach. More than an accomplished recruiter, too.
He was a Tennessee guy who made Tennessee a priority, perhaps to the detriment of his resume. He also was a guy worth keeping if — for no other reason — than that he qualified as a firsthand source on what Tennessee football was all about. The majority of new coach Butch Jones’ assistants qualify as firsthand sources on what Central Michigan football was all about.
Unlike most of Jones’ hires, Graham had no history with Jones at either Central Michigan or Cincinnati. Jones retained him nonetheless. Raved about him, in fact.
Maybe Graham would have preferred more money than praise. Maybe he suddenly felt like an outsider at his own school. Or maybe he was merely putting his career first. Florida State is a better job.
Replacing him will be a challenge.
Not only did Graham have Tennessee ties. He had experience recruiting the Southeast. That experience was magnified on a staff whose deepest roots can be traced to Ohio.
Something else about Graham: He’s black. On a staff already lacking in diversity, you can’t ignore that.
Many SEC football programs have three or four black assistant coaches on their staff. UT is down to one. Think that won’t come up in recruiting?
Jones would be wise to hire a black assistant coach to replace Graham. He should also be a dynamic recruiter. And if he has SEC experience, so much the better.
I can understand the importance Jones places on familiarity with his assistants. He doesn’t want to spend too much time teaching the teachers when he has an entirely new team to educate.
However, familiarity shouldn’t always carry the day. It certainly won’t always carry signing day.
It’s not overly dramatic to think Jones’ next recruiting class will weigh heavily as to whether he succeeds or fails at UT. Dooley had three years to change the course of a program headed in the wrong direction. Why would Jones have any longer?
So there’s a sense of urgency about every recruit and every hire, especially when you are hiring a coach who offered as much as Graham did.
He wasn’t just a running backs coach.