Butch Jones among new coaches recruiting successfully; more mail

Wednesday June 12th, 2013

First-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is on his way to landing a talent-rich 2014 recruiting class.
Randy Sartin/USA Today Sports

I know we're nearly eight months away from National Signing Day and, at this point, most recruits' commitments are only slightly more solid than a Bluth Company model home. But have you looked at Rivals.com's current class rankings for 2014? While there are plenty of usual suspects (Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame, LSU) dominating the top 20, there's also Baylor, Kentucky, Northwestern and Boston College, among others.

The following question involves a usual suspect that may seem unusual to some.

Given that Tennessee has been mired in mediocrity for the better part of a decade, how is new coach Butch Jones creating such a buzz and having immediate success on the recruiting trail? No one has recruited this well at Tennessee in years, and Jones is doing it with the program coming off back-to-back losing seasons.
-- Travis, Knoxville, Tenn.

While I don't know the specifics of Jones' recruiting operation, his success should hardly be considered a surprise. He's a new coach and he's at Tennessee. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a very similar scenario play out: A new coach takes over a traditional power fallen on hard times and puts together a phenomenal first full class (the second Signing Day following his hire), most notably Mack Brown's top-rated 1999 class that reenergized Texas' program and Pete Carroll's 2002 class at then-dormant USC. For more recent examples, check out the hauls Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and UCLA's Jim Mora assembled in 2013, Michigan's Brady Hoke secured in 2012 and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly locked up in 2011, respectively. Even first-year coaches at not-so traditional powers have found early success, including Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze last year and Kentucky's Mark Stoops so far this year.

As the cliché goes, a coach is never more popular than when he's undefeated -- a notion that seems to apply even more prominently in recruiting. Most 17-year-old prospects have short memories. They don't care what happened last year. And the idea of "being part of the class that puts [State U] back on the map" is a powerful selling point. Any recent mediocrity is irrelevant because that was the fault of some other guy. The new guy starts with a clean slate, is brimming with confidence and can reference the program's long, proud history as evidence of all the glory that awaits a potential player. So not to take anything away from Jones' budding class (currently ranked No. 2 by Rivals.com), but I'd be more surprised (and disturbed) if he didn't produce a top-10 class in his first full cycle. This should be the norm, not the exception, at a school with a 100,000-seat stadium, national championships and NFL alums such as Peyton Manning.

It certainly helped Jones to have one of the nation's top running backs in the 2014 class, Jalen Hurd, right in his own state, and a highly rated defensive back, Todd Kelly Jr., located a few miles away in Knoxville. Their early commitments helped the staff build credibility with other elite prospects. Now, it's a matter of keeping everybody on board during the inevitable poaching season leading up to Signing Day. (Rival coaches will surely use Tuesday's news of the program's APR troubles and possible 2014 bowl ban to recruit against the Vols.)

Jones' hire from Cincinnati wasn't universally celebrated at the time, but, as it turns out, Jon Gruden wasn't the only person capable of attracting star athletes to Tennessee. I'm sure Jones has already won over a lot of skeptics. Now he just needs to coach a game.

Stewart, given the latest revelations that members of the North Carolina athletic department attempted and succeeded in offering no-show classes to student-athletes, do you feel the NCAA will return to Chapel Hill and lay down more sanctions?
-- Anthony Santago, Winston-Salem, N.C.

The company line at UNC (based on multiple internal and independent investigations) is that -- because the years and years of fraudulent classes offered by a specific African and Afro-American Studies professor were available to general students and athletes alike -- this is an "academic scandal, not an athletics scandal." And to this point, the NCAA has gone along with that line of thinking. Here's my question: Why can't it be both?

Any reasonable person who read the emails uncovered in the aforementioned News & Observer story can see that academic counselors in the athletic department clearly knew that the professor, Julius Nyang'oro, was the go-to guy if an athlete was in need of an easy credit. One counselor asked him to add a certain class to the schedule for the upcoming semester, and, after Nyang'oro joked about her "driving a hard bargain," he promptly obliged by adding a similar class. The two exchanged friendly messages loaded with emoticons. Another counselor offered Nyang'oro sideline tickets and pregame hospitality. And there were even "outlines" for proposed papers that might as well have been papers, and prearranged topics for papers that wound up constituting a player's entire grade for a particular class. That's academic fraud (the school has admitted as much), and it's insulting the public's intelligence at this point to deny that members of the athletic department played a role in any of it.

Given all that, yes, it makes sense to believe the NCAA might want to pay another visit to Chapel Hill. After all, academic fraud is a giant NCAA no-no. But I wouldn't count on it. Ever since the Miami enforcement scandal broke in January, NCAA investigators have been fleeing for other jobs in rapid succession (the latest, veteran higher-up Rachel Newman Baker, took a compliance job at Kentucky this week), and I'm not sure there's anyone left to investigate at UNC or anywhere else.

Stewart, the Pac-12 recently announced that it will begin limiting contact in practice during the week, with limits more restrictive than the current NCAA requirements. Do you anticipate this having any affect on teams' performances come game day?
-- Kohler, Salem, Ore.

There's a definite possibility it could adversely affect teams' performances. Just this past April, USC coach Lane Kiffin told me his biggest regret from last season's 7-6 debacle was limiting his team's contact in practices in an attempt to protect his roster's already thin depth. "... That was the wrong decision," Kiffin said. "At the end of the day, we were not a physical football team the entire year." While commissioner Larry Scott's as-yet unspecified limits won't preclude Kiffin from conducting more physical practices, the Pac-12's effort to enhance player safety could cause some of its coaches to alter their methods of preparing their teams.

It will be interesting to see whether Pac-12 programs show any effect during early-season nonconference games, either in the form of subpar rushing totals or poor tackling on defense. This policy shouldn't factor as significantly in late-season games (like Notre Dame-Stanford) or in bowl games, as most coaches currently ease up on contact later in the year. Of course, all this could also go the other way. If Scott's initative accomplishes its stated goal and Pac-12 teams suffer fewer injuries, then many of the league's squads could be at an advantage, especially if their opponents are hurting.

This much is clear: We should applaud any attempt address these health issues. Player safety, in general, is far important than winning something like the Sun Bowl.

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Stewart, you're pretty good at poo-pooing good ideas. Convince me, a typical college football fan, why Division I football going to a system of promotions and relegations like in English soccer is a bad idea.
-- Josh W., Konolfingen, Switzerland

Is that really my reputation, as the party-pooper?

Some smart minds at SB Nation simulated this very concept last year. It is, in fact, a great idea -- on a computer screen. Back in the real world, if Indiana got relegated to the MAC next year, it would presumably forfeit its $24.7 million cut of the Big Ten's revenue distribution, which means one of two things: Either the athletic department would operate at a massive deficit, or, more likely, the tennis team, the cross country team and maybe even the baseball team that just reached the College World Series would be cut.

Other than those likely side effects, I love the idea. (Just to be clear, I take no pleasure in being the guy that poo-poos these ideas. By all means, keep sending them. Maybe we'll accidentally invent our own Fakeblock along the way.)

Bill Hancock and the commissioners should offer a better picture of the selection committee very soon.
Reed Saxon/AP

Hey Stewart, as of now, do you see the playoff selection committee being made up of coaches, former coaches, administrators, journalists/pundits or some combination (and if so, which group will have the most members)?
-- Andy Nagele, Charleston, S.C.

We should finally begin to get a clearer picture of the committee's makeup next week, when the playoff Management Committee (the commissioners) meets in Colorado Springs. I'd say the committee will almost certainly be composed of a combination of the above, with a few exclusions. Strike current commissioners, current coaches and current print journalists from the list. I don't believe current ADs have been ruled out, though they likely won't be as prevalent on the committee as they are in college basketball. The catchphrase that keeps coming up is people with "football knowledge," which likely points to a mix of former coaches and players (which could include players that now serve as analysts, if their network allows it), retired ADs and commissioners and former or retired college football writers.

Tony Barnhart of CBS recently offered a list of potential candidates that does as good a job as any I've seen in matching names with the vague descriptions of traits the commissioners are supposedly seeking. I don't agree with all of the options, and the list definitely has a heavy "old-boy" feel to it (with the notable exception of Condoleeza Rice). Still, it's hard to argue the qualifications of Tom Osborne, Mike Tranghese or Phil Steele. Regardless of whom is eventually picked, though, I maintain an equally important issue is what type of data the committee uses to guide its decision-making process.

When I was a kid, my father and uncle -- both huge Nebraska fans -- used to to tell me about the great Tommie Frazier. As I got older, I looked up Tommie and learned that he was indeed great, but that he never made the NFL because he was a run-first quarterback in legendary coach Tom Osborne's option offense. Given the recent success of dual-threat quarterbacks such as Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and RGIII, do you think Frazier would get drafted in the NFL if he were coming out of college today? If so, do you think Frazier could be successful?
-- Brian, Glastonbury, Conn.

First of all, Brian, thanks for making me feel really old by reinforcing that I probably have a whole generation of readers who only know of Tommie Frazier through stories and YouTube clips. Frazier, now 38, is barely older than I am. He was also unquestionably one of the most dominant players in college history. But the difference between him and the more modern guys you mentioned is that the latter group didn't play in purely triple-option offenses like Nebraska's. In fact, those more recent quarterbacks were excellent passers who finished first or second nationally in pass efficiency in their respective final seasons; it's conceivable they would have been drafted (though likely not as high) even if they weren't the least bit mobile.

Frazier, on the other hand, attempted just 163 passes his senior season. By comparison, 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel racked up 434 attempts last year. It would be unfair to call Frazier a bad passer, as he did complete 56 percent of his throws during that 1995 season with a 17-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In fact, Frazier's 156.1 efficiency rating was about the same as both Manziel's and first-round pick E.J. Manuel's in 2012. Of course, only a handful of teams (Georgia Tech and the service academies) run a full-fledged option offense today, and if Frazier were coming up now, he'd likely be in a different scheme. Imagine an alternate universe in which Frazier is born 18 years later and matriculates at Oregon! In that scenario, he'd have more chances to prove his merit as a passer. Even then, though, he'd probably follow much the same recent path as Denard Robinson. He would be drafted, but only as a running back or receiver. The real Frazier never was afforded that chance due in part to health issues leading up to the draft.

Missouri struggled mightily during its first year in the SEC. Given that the SEC is far and away the best conference in college football, how much is Gary Pinkel's job at risk?
-- Steve Fifolt, Strongsville, Ohio

He shouldn't be in any immediate danger. All parties involved knew that there would likely be an adjustment period, though I'm sure Kevin Sumlin's immediate SEC success at Texas A&M doesn't help his cause. Still, I wouldn't judge Pinkel off one bad and injury-plagued season after more than a decade of winning at a program that hadn't enjoyed a whole lot of it before he arrived. Also, on Tuesday, Pinkel's program posted the highest APR score (982) in the SEC. That doesn't help Mizzou win games, but it's sure to please Pinkel's bosses.

Let's see what the Tigers look like this season with a healthy James Franklin and Henry Josey and presumably an improved offensive line. They should be more competitive. But if not, and particularly if Mizzou finishes sub-.500 for a second straight year, then Pinkel would likely be at risk heading into 2014. By then (if not sooner), Mizzou fans will be clamoring for their own version of Sumlin.

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Stewart, a question has been nagging in the back of my brain as the SEC's dominance and cachet grows. I keep going back to the final weekend in 2007 when No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia lost to Oklahoma and Pitt, respectively. If both or probably even just one of those teams wins, LSU doesn't even make it to the BCS championship and the SEC's championship streak is over basically before it begins. I feel like the landscape of college football would be drastically different today had LSU not won that championship six years ago. What do you think?
-- Mark Ryan, Albuquerque, N.M.

That just means the SEC's streak would be five years, not seven, and you'd still be hearing all about it. But you're right about one thing: The landscape would be completely different. Les Miles, not Rich Rodriguez, would have become the coach of Michigan. Andy Staples addressed that very alternate scenario (among many, many others) just last year.

The few remaining Wolverines fans who haven't already taken a Forget-Me-Now for that era would surely be thrilled.

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