as a vol, i hope butch pans out, but to be fair, anyone with a pulse would have looked promising after three years of that stiff with the famous last name.
If someone were to tell you Kentucky is ranked #1 nationally, you might think the guy doing the telling had had one too many cocktails at lunch.
Yet both statements are true on this June 19th, 2013. And the new head coaches at Kentucky and Tennessee deserve a helluva lot of credit for their strong early work.
At Kentucky, Mark Stoops is doing the unthinkable — he’s turning football recruiting into a topic of conversation in the Bluegrass State. With 18 commitments already in the bag, UK has jumped Texas, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, Clemson and Stoops’ old school, Florida State, in the national rankings. No one but the bluest-blooded Wildcat fan would have predicted that kind of success for Stoops upon his hiring. And they certainly wouldn’t have predicted that success would come so quickly.
For years on this site we’ve stated that Kentucky could indeed turn its football program around with the right coach, the right recruiting focus, and the right amount of financial support. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart seems to have scored well in all three areas since dismissing Joker Phillips. Stoops is clearly a top-notch salesman. Right now he’s peddling nothing more than a dream (much as James Franklin had to do as he began his rebuilding work at Vanderbilt). Stoops is pushing that dream to recruits in his home state of Ohio, long a needed recruiting base for the Cats. With eight of his school’s commitments coming from the Buckeye State, Stoops is not only targeting the right area but he’s having success there.
Finally — and there’s another Vanderbilt comparison to be made here — Stoops and his staff are getting the backing that previous UK coaches only dreamed of. Bigger salaries are nice, but the promise of improved facilities and a larger recruiting budget mean much more in terms of overall program health. While Franklin has done a tremendous job in Nashville, he’s had the backing of AD David Williams and the Commodore administration when it comes to his team’s needs. Apparently the UK administration took note of the progress at VU and Stoops is the beneficiary. More importantly, he’s already giving Kentucky a good early return on its investments.
Down I-75 in Knoxville, Butch Jones is also turning heads. The Vols’ new coach is a poor man’s Bruce Pearl in terms of marketing. That’s no insult, the guy just hasn’t painted himself orange on national television yet. Everything else? He’s done it. He’s seized upon every opportunity to make a speech, shake a hand or slap a back. He’s coaxed former Vols back to Knoxville, making them feel a part of their program for the first time in years, which of course also turns them into salesmen for his program.
Recruits at Tennessee’s spring game, for example, had to be impressed when one NFL great after another popped up on the sidelines or on Neyland Stadium’s giant video screen.
Jones, unlike Stoops, also has tradition, that massive stadium and one of the nicest, flashiest new football complexes in the US to sell to his prospects. That doesn’t make his immediate success any less impressive, however. He’s still having to package those commodities into a sales pitch that works. To date, he’s done just that.
Jones has captured 16 commitments already and he’s covered the entire Eastern half of the country to get them. The Vols currently have verbal agreements with players from Tennessee (obviously), Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Located in a state — like Kentucky — that produces few NFL-caliber prospects each season, that kind of national approach is a necessity.
It’s evident to any college football fan with a passing interest in recruiting that both Kentucky and Tennessee have hired excellent pitchmen. Their schools’ hot starts are proof of that. But as UK play-by-play man Tom Leach asked me on his radio show this morning — told ya they’re talking football recruiting in the Commonwealth — what’s the next step?
For both schools, some form of on-field success is necessary in the fall. Back to Franklin at Vandy, he sold a dream, then he took his team to back-to-back bowls. Now he’s no longer selling a dream. He’s got actual wins and bowl trips in his quiver.
Stoops and Jones will both need to hold onto their commitments through the fall, through January and right up until National Signing Day. Last year the Cats went 0-8 in the SEC. The Vols’ lone win in league play came over UK. Repeated failings this season will only open the door for other programs to counter Stoops’ and Jones’ offers with warnings of, “If you go there, you’ll lose week after week.”
Hugh Freeze, like Franklin, kept his recruiting momentum going by leading Ole Miss to a bowl game in his first season. The Rebels haven’t slowed on the recruiting trail since.
Now, it will be awfully challenging for Stoops and Jones to take their squads bowling this season. They’ve both inherited thin rosters and quarterback conundrums. While Kentucky plays Louisville during its non-conference stretch, Tennessee must travel to Oregon. Both schools will also face a Western Kentucky squad coached by Bobby Petrino, a man who was passed over by both UK and UT. Throw in the usual SEC gauntlet and six wins will be hard to reach in Lexington and in Knoxville.
For that reason, it’s imperative for the new coaches to pull an upset, create a signature moment, take the wraps off a high-powered offense… something that recruits can take as proof of a bright future. There has to be at least one positive moment that Stoops and Jones can use to say, “See? This is what we’re going to do when you get here.”
It’s probably a little too pie-in-the-sky for Wildcat and Volunteer fans to believe that their programs will finish atop the national recruiting rankings come February. The Alabamas, LSUs and Ohio States of the world will more than likely finish strong — as they always do — and zip past UK and UT as they nab a bevy a five-star blue-chippers.
But if either school is still in the national top 10 come signing day, it will still be something worth of a celebration. It will be a sign of good things to come.
The quick starts of both Jones and Stoops are already promising signs.