Caleb Azubike, a defensive end from Nashville, donned a Vanderbilt hat. So did Nashville wide receiver Corey Batey. Then Brian Kimbrow, the most heavily recruited of the three, picked up a Tennessee hat. But try as he might, Kimbrow couldn't get the orange lid on his head.
"Nah, it didn't fit," Kimbrow said during a live broadcast by Nashville's WGFX-FM. Then Kimbrow grabbed another hat. "It's Vandy," he said.
Vanderbilt? Really? Players with offers from other SEC schools committed to play for the SEC's doormat? Don't they know the Commodores have played in only one bowl game since 1982?
They know all that, and they don't care. The trio of committed to Vandy because the players believe first-year Commodores coach James Franklin is about to build something special, and they wanted to help lay the foundation. "We can do something special," Kimbrow told SI.com. "That's something I'm interested in."
The most impressive get is Kimbrow. Rivals.com considers the 5-foot-9, 165-pound blazer from East High in Memphis to be Tennessee's best player from the class of 2012 and the nation's second-best all-purpose back in the class. Kimbrow is small, but coaches from Auburn, Notre Dame, USC and others have offered scholarships because they believe he can zip past a defense if he gets a sliver of open space.
Franklin has the same ammunition predecessors Woody Widenhofer, Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell had. He can pull out a graduation-rate chart and show how Vanderbilt crushes its SEC brethren when it comes to players actually receiving degrees. Georgia and Florida actually boast a slightly higher Academic Progress Rate score over the past five years, but in terms of the Federal Graduation Rate figure -- how many players receive degrees within six years of enrollment -- it isn't close. Vandy treats the rest of the SEC in the classroom the way Ohio State has treated the rest of the Big Ten on the field in the past decade. According to the most recent five-year data compiled by the NCAA, Vandy graduated 81.5 percent of players within six years of enrollment. Ole Miss finished second at 53.5 percent.
So why has Franklin's pitch worked better? Because Franklin doesn't rely solely on graduation-rate charts. He challenges a player's manhood. "If you feel that you are the best and the brightest, come prove it with me week in and week out," Franklin told SI.com on Wednesday. "If you're afraid of competition, then you'd better not be playing major division football, and you'd better not be considering the SEC."
Like Jim Harbaugh at Stanford before him, Franklin has turned his school's sterling academic reputation into a recruiting tool. And while Franklin rarely points to The Associated Press rankings, he isn't shy about comparing the SEC schools side-by-side in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. "I know how this game goes," Franklin said. "Every school, you're going to leave there thinking they've got great academics. They don't. Go on US News and World Report and look it up yourself." Currently, Vanderbilt stands at No. 17. That's behind FBS brethren Stanford (No. 5), Duke (No. 9) and Northwestern (No. 12) but miles ahead of the next three SEC schools, which come it at No. 53 (Florida), No. 56 (Georgia) and No. 79 (Alabama).
If necessary, Franklin also frames one of his competitors' chief tactics in a way that could turn a player against a rival coach and toward Franklin. "Is it too hard? That's what people use against us," Franklin said. "Don't go to Vanderbilt. It's too hard academically. Well, what are they telling you? What are they saying to you when they say don't go to Vanderbilt because it's too hard academically?" The answer is obvious; in not so many words, Franklin has just convinced a recruit that a competing coach thinks the player is too stupid to succeed at Vandy.
Franklin also refuses to give up, even when he doesn't appear to have a chance. In January, Franklin sat in the living room of Josh Grady, a quarterback from Armwood High in Seffner, Fla. "The first thing he told me is 'We won't take no for an answer.' It's just the confidence he has in building a program," Grady said. "He just kind of swayed me into believing what he believed."
Vandy wasn't even on Grady's radar until Franklin walked through Grady's front door and refused to hear the word "no." "I didn't even know his name until he said that," Grady said. He knew it afterward. In February, Grady signed with Vanderbilt. But to get Grady, Franklin had to beat Duke, Connecticut and Iowa State. To keep a player such as Kimbrow, he'll have to beat SEC rivals, including the defending national champs.
Franklin understands that. He also understands that the players who can succeed on the field and in the classroom at Vandy are coveted by everyone. To win consistently, Franklin needs to beat Alabama for the next Barrett Jones. He needs to beat Florida for the next Jelani Jenkins. "The reality is that it's not just Vanderbilt that wants the great students," Franklin said. "Everybody fights for those guys. When you can find a great player who is also a really good student, everybody in the country wants those guys. Sometimes people think that you're only fighting with the academic schools. The reality is everybody wants as many of those guys on their roster as possible."
Here's another reality: 12-68. That's Vandy's SEC record in the past 10 seasons. That kind of futility doesn't change overnight. The task also won't get easier if the league's megapowers suddenly see Franklin as a threat on the recruiting trail. Franklin has promised to be as aggressive on the field as he is during an in-home visit, but Vandy probably doesn't have a deep enough roster to stay competitive against every SEC foe. So don't be shocked this season if opposing starters stay in longer against the Commodores, whether because of competitive necessity or because the opposing coach wants to make a point to all the recruits considering Vandy.
Franklin has even turned this, his greatest problem, into a recruiting tool of sorts. "Do you want to play early?" he frequently asks prospects.
Kimbrow understands why coaches at other schools would be surprised to hear of his commitment. He expects everyone will wonder why he didn't make a safer choice in terms of gridiron success. "A lot of players don't want to take that chance," Kimbrow said. "They think there are better things for them at a bigger school. I know things ain't going to develop overnight. It's going to take some time, and that's something I understand. But that's a risk that I'm willing to take. Because I know we can change things."
Of course, any unexpected success in recruiting is logically followed by whispers of impropriety. When I appear on the Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio, it has become a running joke between myself and hosts Van Pelt and Ryen Rusilo and producer Steve Coughlin that when people offer me anonymous tips involving recruiting chicanery, no one ever accuses Vandy. That hasn't been the case in the past few weeks. Since word leaked that the trio of Tennesseans would commit, the rumor mill has cranked full force. Franklin has heard the talk, too.
"I do laugh at that," he said. "With the integrity of the school where I work, we're not going to stand for that. We've never had a major violation [in football] at this school. Ever. That's not how we're going to do business. That's why it's going to be so much more gratifying at the end of this when we're successful."
But will they be successful? Friday brought great news, but it's July 1. Last July 7, after spending a week with a seven-on-seven team, I wrote a column about what a verbal commitment means to today's recruits. On National Signing Day, I checked back to see where the seven players from the column had signed. Only one, Ohio State-bound safety Jeremy Cash, wound up at the school to which he was committed last July.
So while Franklin may have pulled the biggest coup of his young head coaching career on Friday, the true miracle will come in February if Kimbrow, Azubike and Batey actually sign with Vandy. For his part, Kimbrow said he'll be part of the class at the end. "I've had a chance to think about this for two years now," Kimbrow said. "I've been being recruited since 10th grade. ... This is where I feel comfortable. This is where I want to go."