KNOXVILLE — While many were assuming one thing, Jay Graham continued to maintain his focus on the present.
The former Tennessee tailback appeared to be a shoo-in to remain the Volunteers' running backs coach through a head-coaching change, but the process wasn't that simple.
As Graham said last week, such situations never are.
"There was a lot of uncertainty," said the lone holdover on new coach Butch Jones' staff. "You look at the history of it, it doesn't happen often. When I think about it, I don't feel entitled to be here just because I played here, being an alumni.
"That's not the way it works. It's business in the SEC. It doesn't work like that, so I was just trying to do my job and do as much as possible to ensure that I could be here, and hopefully Coach Jones thought I was a good enough coach to be here."
It took Jones little time to know he'd go in that direction.
"There was a process, and I don't believe in saying kept on or retained," Jones told the Times Free Press during an interview last week. "We rehired him. I rehired him.
"It took all of about five minutes in our interview to know that this is a guy that has impeccable character, he has an affinity for the University of Tennessee, he can walk into a young man's house and walk the walk and talk the talk because he's played it, he's lived it. Obviously he's a very, very good football coach, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him."
Graham coached one of the Vols' most improved units this season. After playing receiver last season, Rajion Neal averaged 4.5 yards per carry for the season and ran for 440 yards in Tennessee's first five games before suffering an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games and limited him when he did return. Marlin Lane averaged nearly 79 yards rushing in the final six games.
The 37-year-old Graham built his reputation recruiting and coaching Marcus Lattimore under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina the previous three seasons, and he'll provide continuity that Jones said was "invaluable" during the first crucial weeks and months of a transition.
"Really those two weeks, I probably spent the most time on the road [recruiting] with him than anyone else," Jones said. "We're very fortunate to have him as part of our staff, and he's going to be an integral part of our staff moving forward. I've relied on him for a lot of things, and he's come through.
"He's a great character person, great family person, and he fits the profile of what we were looking for in a coaching staff."
Under Derek Dooley, Graham recruited the Nashville area, where there's already a number of talented juniors. Tennessee gained its first commitment for the 2014 class on Christmas Day, when Independence High School's Vic Wharton announced his choice via Twitter. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete, who played his freshman season at Knoxville Catholic, is rated as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, though he's only the 15th-ranked junior in Tennessee according to 247Sports.
Keeping Graham also keeps the Vols in the mix for Richmond (Va.) tailback Derrick Green and Charlotte (N.C.) receiver MarQuez North. The top-rated running back according to Rivals, the 6-foot, 220-pound Green has taken official visits to Tennessee, Auburn and Michigan, and Oregon and Florida State are among others still in the hunt. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound North, a four-star recruit, has reportedly narrowed his choice to North Carolina and the Vols.
While he tries to do his part to help Tennessee complete its 2013 class and continues to build relationships for the 2014 crop, Graham also is feeling out the new head coach and assistants around him.
"They're good guys," Graham said. "They know each other well, which is good to know. It's just me kind of catching up with them. No egos there. They're blue-collar guys. They ask a lot of questions instead of saying they've got all the answers. Those kind of guys. It's been refreshing to be around them, and I feel comfortable around them. I think that's the most important thing."
One question in particular is a recurring inquiry.
"Where to go to dinner is probably the biggest one," Graham joked. "It's been really good. I've answered questions, and they've told me some things that they like to do, so just trying to mesh those things together is the biggest thing."
The uncertainly of his future behind him, Graham's focus now is rewarding Jones for keeping him and the fans who have embraced him throughout the process.
"It makes you feel good," he said, "and it makes you want to keep trying to be here and do everything that you're supposed to do to be here. "
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...