Tennessee's recruiting office following national trend in shift to NFL-style focus

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.

Adding on

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.

Keeping up

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.

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Comments » 14

voloffaith writes:

So from the song, " Everybody is a STAR....." Just how many and why...

Olddogsrule writes:

Hope all you Vols have a happy Father's Day!

Olddogsrule writes:

Thank you Evan for an informative article on the direction of recruiting. Glad to see the Volunteer football recruiting program going to a more intensive player evaluation. Although the NCAA shelved unlimited access rule changes, the end result will benefit schools with the bucks to go to a more pro style evaluation program.

And yeah, it's really good to hear a man who's been in the pros for years, didn't really have a dog in the SEC race until his hiring, have such good things to say about bUTch Jones' early career.

My two cents worth is, considering the NCAA rule changes for high school academic eligibility coming soon (2.30 over a 2.0 GPA and sliding ACT, SAT), and how that can (and will for some schools) crash the 4 year rolling APR.

Zero APR point for a kid of questionable character getting in trouble and cut from the team.
Zero APR point for a kid who flunks out, and looses his scholly, and 1 point for just being academically out for a semester to bring up the GPA.

They absolutely have to recruit the kids who not only have the athletic skill sets, but have the character to keep their nose clean and remain academically eligible.

Bob Welton's got a tough job. His last words pretty much sez it all.

utvolfan1955 writes:

Vols got another commitment today
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wFVk...

gillblog writes:

More and more major collegiate level sports is taking on the nature of a farm-league to the pros. APR controversies are a red herring to the essential purpose and direction of college athletics; money.
People get tired of hearing me say this, but I will not be convinced that the most reasonable course to take is to drop the pretentious connection between major sports and collegiate admittance. Pay for play is the truth now so why not acknowledge the fact and move on? Contract/license these 'teams' as professional organizations attached to the colleges by contract alone. The players can attend the college if they like (hopefully they will be so motivated and therefore actually serious about getting an education, not just meeting bear minimum standards to qualify to play) but will be paid to play with the college logo. The college gets a fair share of the proceeds, which is no small sum these days, and the players will have a direct path to the pros unhindered by inane behavioral rules which pretend to ensure their "amature" status.

End of rant.

Olddogsrule writes:

Or, make the academic entrance requirements for scholar/athletes the same as those for each school. Drop the idea that the kids who want to go straight to the pros will do any real classwork, and they can go to arena ball, overseas, or some such to work their way into the pros. Pro baseball has their farm leagues, but pro football lives off the college ranks. Why let the NFL have that free ride, and why force colleges to babysit prima donna pro wannabes who will not or cannot be scholars, and get punished for a poor APR? Will college team skill level go down somewhat? Sure. But then, we can actually have college football played by scholar/athletes.

End of second rant.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

Many young athletes will forsake their time in college to take a shot at the NFL. I for one believe CFB should stay away from any connection with the NFL, it will only cheapen the role of the student/athlete and pad the talent pool of the NFL. Meanwhile the university that recruited so hard to find this talent really only serves as a secondary NFL scout in the grand scheme of things. It's obvious that any program wanting to recruit 4&5* athletes must prove they are the springboard needed to fulfill NFL aspirations.

gillblog writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Many young athletes will forsake their time in college to take a shot at the NFL. I for one believe CFB should stay away from any connection with the NFL, it will only cheapen the role of the student/athlete and pad the talent pool of the NFL. Meanwhile the university that recruited so hard to find this talent really only serves as a secondary NFL scout in the grand scheme of things. It's obvious that any program wanting to recruit 4&5* athletes must prove they are the springboard needed to fulfill NFL aspirations.

Beare, the money is so big and powerful and it cannot be stopped. We would all love to see separation of pro and collegiate athletics but the profits are so compelling anything which only tweaks the system is merely a temporary roadblock on the freeway to forture.
Incidently, if you haven't read it, there is a rare book out there titled "The Big Orange Book" which goes back to the days when these football teams were nothing more than a bunch of college kids who liked football and went out to a field on weekends and played as a team...my gosh, frequently the coach was the team captain and a years accounting showed them in the red for $300 ! True scholar-athletes, then. But, it is all fundamentally gone. Lost. Nothing like it will ever happen again, all because of the money.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to gillblog:

Beare, the money is so big and powerful and it cannot be stopped. We would all love to see separation of pro and collegiate athletics but the profits are so compelling anything which only tweaks the system is merely a temporary roadblock on the freeway to forture.
Incidently, if you haven't read it, there is a rare book out there titled "The Big Orange Book" which goes back to the days when these football teams were nothing more than a bunch of college kids who liked football and went out to a field on weekends and played as a team...my gosh, frequently the coach was the team captain and a years accounting showed them in the red for $300 ! True scholar-athletes, then. But, it is all fundamentally gone. Lost. Nothing like it will ever happen again, all because of the money.

Oh, you were never more correct about the money machine called the NFL and CFB. I'm concerned about the college game because ESPN and CBS/FOX sports etc want to dictate how the league plays for their championship or determines a champion. I get steamed every time I listen to these so called expert analyst trying to predict the final two teams out of 130 D1 schools in August. They want so badly the same set up the NFL has so they can disregard about 75 other programs and solely talk about Bama or OSU. The beauty of CFB were the 86' Sugar Bowl shocker, or Notre Dame Upsetting Bama in the Orange Bowl under Ara Parsegian. That wonderful day that used to be NYD (the greatest day of CFB ever) has been reduced to one or two games daily during the bowl season with about 2/3rds of those games un-watchable.

gillblog writes:

Describing all that, you have painted an inclusive and illustrative picture of the whole industry. We, as fans, tend to look at this merely in terms of players and their connections with pro teams, but there is vast world beyond that radiating and feeding on the sport. TV, fantasy teams (where ESPN is heavily marketed), agents, endorsements, local event enterprises which is a huge world by itself, not to mention the so-called "controlling body" calling itself the NCAA.

We have to face it. Big time college sports is a very very big business. There is nothing amaturish inside or out. My contention is that we should acknowledge the situation and discard the fantasy of connecting higher academics with exceptional athletics.

gillblog writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEARE:

Oh, you were never more correct about the money machine called the NFL and CFB. I'm concerned about the college game because ESPN and CBS/FOX sports etc want to dictate how the league plays for their championship or determines a champion. I get steamed every time I listen to these so called expert analyst trying to predict the final two teams out of 130 D1 schools in August. They want so badly the same set up the NFL has so they can disregard about 75 other programs and solely talk about Bama or OSU. The beauty of CFB were the 86' Sugar Bowl shocker, or Notre Dame Upsetting Bama in the Orange Bowl under Ara Parsegian. That wonderful day that used to be NYD (the greatest day of CFB ever) has been reduced to one or two games daily during the bowl season with about 2/3rds of those games un-watchable.

Beare & Olddogs:
Don't forget, the only way the facility allowing us to talk with each other in this medium right now exists is that it is a deriviative of the money generated by UT sports.

Olddogsrule writes:

in response to Ghost_Of_Neyland:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

No I'm not acting as if character is easily determined. Petrino is probably the best example of a coach with a character flaw. Folks who interview and hire well know how hard it is to determine character.

Discounting the 2016 eligibility rules and their effect on the APR and calling it "spin by hangers-on" is the quickest road I can think of to NCAA sanctions. For Hart and Jones to institute the Volympics is in fact a direct response to the NCAA's expectations of establishing a "culture of compliance" for schools with a low APR such as Tennessee.
Due to your OCD fixation on Coach Derek Dooley, Athletic Administrator Dave Hart and Chancellor Cheek, I suggest you're the one needing to 'give it rest' ... under supervised care.

antonio14313 writes:

in response to Olddogsrule:

Thank you Evan for an informative article on the direction of recruiting. Glad to see the Volunteer football recruiting program going to a more intensive player evaluation. Although the NCAA shelved unlimited access rule changes, the end result will benefit schools with the bucks to go to a more pro style evaluation program.

And yeah, it's really good to hear a man who's been in the pros for years, didn't really have a dog in the SEC race until his hiring, have such good things to say about bUTch Jones' early career.

My two cents worth is, considering the NCAA rule changes for high school academic eligibility coming soon (2.30 over a 2.0 GPA and sliding ACT, SAT), and how that can (and will for some schools) crash the 4 year rolling APR.

Zero APR point for a kid of questionable character getting in trouble and cut from the team.
Zero APR point for a kid who flunks out, and looses his scholly, and 1 point for just being academically out for a semester to bring up the GPA.

They absolutely have to recruit the kids who not only have the athletic skill sets, but have the character to keep their nose clean and remain academically eligible.

Bob Welton's got a tough job. His last words pretty much sez it all.

great article! great post. i like how he said something about being a different person now than from age 17. kinda like, predicting the future, recruiting these kids.

sooo many factors into recruiting 3 star, 4 star, 5 star players. not just talent, and good fits, but smarts and character as well, amongst other things...

go vols.

t

antonio14313 writes:

in response to Olddogsrule:

No I'm not acting as if character is easily determined. Petrino is probably the best example of a coach with a character flaw. Folks who interview and hire well know how hard it is to determine character.

Discounting the 2016 eligibility rules and their effect on the APR and calling it "spin by hangers-on" is the quickest road I can think of to NCAA sanctions. For Hart and Jones to institute the Volympics is in fact a direct response to the NCAA's expectations of establishing a "culture of compliance" for schools with a low APR such as Tennessee.
Due to your OCD fixation on Coach Derek Dooley, Athletic Administrator Dave Hart and Chancellor Cheek, I suggest you're the one needing to 'give it rest' ... under supervised care.

i wonder how we can get updates on how the Volympics are going? i wouldn't mind knowing...

go vols.

t

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