The stakes are high. The money is there. The competition is fiercer than ever.
Tennessee’s football recruiting office, along with perhaps dozens of other programs, is re-imagining its role and rebuilding in the image of an NFL personnel office focused more on breaking down film and scouting prospects than administrative paperwork.
“The trend is to hire a personnel guy,” said Bob Welton, “and then let him run the recruiting office.”
Welton, hired in April, is that personnel guy for the Vols and first-year coach Butch Jones.
Potential NCAA rule changes that would have dramatically altered the scope of football recruiting have been tabled and are unlikely to be revisited. But while that has forced big-money teams to scale back some of their most grandiose hiring plans, the change in philosophy remains.
For teams with enormous resources, it makes sense to hire individuals with expertise in talent evaluation to handle what were once largely administrative roles.
Off the top of his head, Welton rattles off Alabama, Notre Dame and Texas as schools that are investing in the new model.
“It’s catching on regardless of the NCAA rules,” he said.
The way Tennessee has been raking in verbal commitments might give the appearance of a methodical, well-oiled machine working behind the scenes.
But if Welton is honest, the recruiting office has been working at a frenetic pace with fewer staffers than is ideal while trying to catch up in the 2013 recruiting race and then overcoming staff departures in the 2014 recruiting cycle.
“It’s amazing these guys have done as well as they’ve done, because they’ve just been kind of going nuts,” Welton said. “But these coaches work hard, and the staff here has been holding it together.”
Welton said he wants to add some structure and organization to the recruiting process — “putting down on paper,” he says, what had previously been done on the fly out of necessity.
He also received authorization to hire as many as 18 student workers to help with some of the legwork that goes into uploading, processing and organizing video of recruits.
“That kind of gives you the gist of how big this operation is,” he said.
Mike Vollmar, hired in April to be Tennessee’s senior associate athletic director for football, has spent most of his professional career on the administrative side of the football office at places such as Syracuse, Michigan and Alabama, so he’s in a good position to chart its evolution.
In the 1980s, when Vollmar was fresh out of college, many big programs were beginning to add a full-time recruiting coordinator, who could evaluate and call recruits without being a member of the on-field coaching staff.
“Well, that position exploded,” Vollmar said.
The NCAA clamped down in the 1990s, pushing many of the recruiting and evaluating duties back on the on-field coaching staff. Even the title of “recruiting coordinator” was given, at least nominally, to an on-field coach.
“Thus started the evolution of the director of football operations,” Vollmar said.
With many of the pure recruiting duties back on the coaching staff, the operations director could still help with budgeting, travel, organizing visits and other administrative hurdles. He just couldn’t call recruits or write offer letters.
But any hopes by the NCAA of stemming the growth of the football staff were short-lived. Some schools added assistant and associate athletic directors with a range of football oversight responsibilities. Many added administrators in charge of player development, player personnel, NFL relations, high school relations and other assorted titles. The burdens of the on-field staff were eased by the addition of volunteer assistants, “analysts” and quality-control assistants — in addition to the NCAA-regulated graduate assistant positions.
The only limit was a coach’s creativity — and a school’s willingness to spend.
“To be honest with you, it’s really dependent on the program and how many people they want to have and how many, from a budget standpoint, you can afford,” Vollmar said.
Alabama, where Vollmar worked with current UT athletic director Dave Hart, is well known for spending lavishly on football. And many schools sounded the alarm that proposed recruiting rule changes would allow places like Alabama to spend at an obscene rate that everyone else would be forced to keep up with.
“When those first came out, Alabama hired a million people right away, and that kind of got the ball rolling everywhere else,” Welton said. “I think what’s happening since is people have been slowing down.”
Under the now-tabled rule proposals, which would have deregulated the staff members who could speak to recruits and how often and in what ways the recruits could be contacted, some believed that power-conference schools would set up a system of “area scouts” to supplement on-field coaching staffs.
Recruiting offices around the country — and particularly in big-money conferences like the SEC — were in flux, waiting to see whether the rules would really stick. They didn’t. But the vision that informed some of the hiring decisions at places like Alabama and elsewhere is here to stay.
“I think everybody did the right thing by kind of putting the brakes on right now and saying, ‘Let’s think about this and evaluate some things,’ ” Vollmar said.
As for the future, Vollmar said it’s tough to escape a debate between the haves and have-nots in an unregulated recruiting marketplace.
“The more deregulation, the more you’re going to be able to do things for student-athletes,” Vollmar said. “That’s going to cost you money to do those things. So obviously, some people are going to fare better than others.”
An NFL perspective
Welton first met Jones when he was coaching at South Haven (Mich.) High School and Jones was an assistant at Ferris State.
“He was just a good guy,” Welton said. “He always took his time. Even years when we didn’t have players, he still came through, still made contact and he was one of the few guys that would really do that.
“There was always something different about him, you know? Like, he’s going to be going somewhere some day. You just got that feeling.”
Welton’s predecessor, J.R. Sandlin, held the title of director of recruiting. Welton, whose job is to manage the recruiting office, is called the director of player personnel. The difference isn’t just semantics. Welton spent a decade as a scout in the NFL, but not a single day on a college coaching staff.
“Coach Jones was looking for somebody different,” said Welton. “It was never a really big thing with him as far as, ‘Hey, you don’t know this.’ He’d say, ‘We have people that can help you with that.’ It was more important for him to get a kind of NFL perspective into Tennessee. He liked the fact that I knew what an NFL player looked like.”
As a pro scout, Welton spent much of his time visiting campuses, watching film and visiting with college coaches.
“I’d seen behind the curtain, so to speak, so I knew what schools were doing and how they approach things,” he said.
After spending the past decade projecting which college athletes will turn into NFL stars, he admits his new job sorting through high school players will be tougher.
“The big thing is when you’re in the NFL, the players are a little bit more made,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s some projection, but you get a better feel, especially of their character. I would say that has probably come through at that point — their toughness, some of those intangibles that can come with a player.”
And high school kids?
“Boy, do you remember back when you were 17? I’m a totally different person than when I was 17. So those are a little harder to predict.”
His job now is to predict them.