As Tennessee begins its preparation for the upcoming football season, fans probably already are looking to future seasons.
So what if the Vols are a consensus pick to finish in the bottom half of the SEC East this season. They’re recruiting like a top-five program.
And first-year coach Butch Jones is building up equity at an unprecedented pace for someone who has yet to put a single victory in Tennessee’s win column.
He’s doing something else, too. He’s reminding you that Tennessee remains a football attraction.
You might have wondered about that after three consecutive losing seasons led to the firing of coach Derek Dooley and the hiring of Jones.
Never mind the school’s well-documented football tradition. Tradition isn’t erosion-proof.
You couldn’t tell that by the way Jones and his staff are recruiting.
They didn’t hit the ground running. They came in flying.
And they haven’t slowed down since Jones left Cincinnati for Knoxville. Tennessee is putting together one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
That would have been the biggest story of SEC football’s offseason if Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel hadn’t slept late at the Manning quarterback camp and Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison hadn’t barked at an on-duty police dog in Gainesville.
UT already has 24 commitments for its 2014 signing class. That’s Texas-like recruiting.
This UT isn’t Texas.
It has had four losing seasons in the past five years and hasn’t played in a BCS bowl since the 1999 season. It doesn’t have the built-in advantage of a bountiful in-state recruiting class. And it’s surrounded by national champions or national championship contenders in its own conference.
You would never know it by the way recruits keep pledging their allegiance.
It was surprising enough when Tennessee hit the double-figure mark in commitments so soon. It was more surprising when the momentum continued to build throughout the summer.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been surprised by UT’s recruiting.
In the transition from longtime coach Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin — and on the heels of a 5-7 season — the Vols still landed a top-10 class for 2009. They did the same a year later after a 7-6 season and another coaching change, as Dooley replaced Southern California-bound Kiffin.
Those recruiting classes didn’t play up to their ranking. However, they proved that even in the worst of times, Tennessee could attract highly recruited players.
Johnny Majors proved as much in the late 1970s when he returned to his alma mater after coaching Pittsburgh to the 1976 national championship.
Jones arrived from Cincinnati without anything close to a national championship on his resume. He was best known as the guy who followed Brian Kelly.
He was a Michigander with no Tennessee or even SEC connections. But he has sold Tennessee as though he were a direct descendant of Davy Crockett.
Granted, commitments don’t equate to signees. National Signing Day is months away, and there’s a daunting 2013 season in between. But if Jones and his staff were capable of convincing so many sought-after recruits to commit, they’re capable of holding on to most of them.
The scoreboard will command fans’ attention in another month. But they shouldn’t lose sight of that commitment list, either.
It’s too promising to ignore.