On the chilly evening of Jan. 18, some Tennessee students gathered up some paint and went about transforming the Rock into a giant welcoming billboard for visiting football recruits.
Upon a black backdrop, the Rock declared in orange: "Welcome Recruits! Rise to the Top! #Team117." Below the message were the last names of every visiting recruit: Carl Lawson, Malik Foreman, Davin Bellamy and nearly a dozen others.
They went to a popular message board at volnation.com and basked in the praise of their fellow fans for a job well done. A few hours later, they were shocked to learn that their work — which had taken hours to produce — had already been painted over. Even more surprising? The people who had ruined their message worked for Tennessee.
Since the 1960s, the Rock has been a sort of free-speech canvas for opinions, promotions, artwork and just about anything else that can brushed or spray-painted on the side of a boulder.
But there's one issue for which UT officials say there is no gray area: Any message geared to recruits is an NCAA violation, and the athletic department will do everything in its power to take it down.
"The bylaw that's associated with that has to do with publicizing prospects' visits to campus, and that includes painting the rock," said Todd Dooley, the assistant athletic director who leads UT's compliance department. "The coaches know the rules. The students don't, and we don't have as much control over them."
But when Dooley gets word that the Rock is making a pitch to recruits, he makes a few phone calls. Before long, UT employees are on the scene, painting over the names of any prospect.
Dooley said the way the NCAA bylaw is interpreted leaves the school no other options.
"There was a directorate from the SEC that we had to use our best efforts to keep prospects' names from being painted on the Rock," Dooley said. "A lot of the schools in the league don't have anything similar to the Rock, so the opportunity exists to gain an advantage. We've heard about it from other schools."
The bylaw on "publicity" may seem odd, given that the prospects are discussed and debated at length on message boards and in traditional media. Their visits are anticipated and analyzed.
But Dooley said the NCAA has used a broad interpretation of the "publicity" bylaw in the past, even admonishing a school when students held up signs for recruits at events.
So where does that leave enthusiastic students like the ones who painted the Rock last week, who merely want to help the football program?
"Our message generally to students is, leave (recruiting) to the coaches," Dooley said. "The best thing to do is show up to events and show support for Tennessee."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.