Regardless of who the University of Tennessee's next football coach is, the rebuilding project won't be limited to on-field schemes or issues with current players.
Not only did Derek Dooley finish with a losing record in all three of his seasons as UT's head coach, but he and his staff also failed to build a working relationship with high school coaches in the tri-state area, long a recruiting base for the Volunteers.
Dooley was fired last Sunday.
In a Times Free Press early-season poll of 37 prep coaches from southeast Tennessee, northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama, 32 gave Dooley and his staff a failing grade for recruiting rapport and overall communication and effectiveness. Those coaches admitted the lack of familiarity and comfort level in dealing with the UT staff directly affected the recruitment of any current or future prospects in their program.
"You would think [the UT coaches] would make a special point to come here every year, at least to check in, but we didn't hear from them at all," said Calhoun (Ga.) coach Hal Lamb, whose program has had at least one player sign with an FBS program each of the last four years. "The two staffs before, even if we didn't have a kid at the time, they took time to build the relationship for the future for when you did have a kid that they would want.
"We got a call from a grad assistant, but I didn't know who on their actual staff recruited our area because I didn't hear from them. That's amazing to me."
Each of those coaches admitted, however, that they would not hold a grudge against the program and would welcome the new head coach and staff to begin building a better relationship.
The current class that Dooley has put together ranks outside the top 10 in the league by every major recruiting service. While there is only a handful of FBS-level talent in the Chattanooga area this season, the biggest complaint is the lack of communication that was built for the future, when a program does have an SEC-caliber player.
"If Derek Dooley had stayed as their coach, I would've had a hard time advising any player to go there," current Hixson and former Rhea County coach Jason Fitzgerald said this past week. "That staff didn't follow up or return calls, and really I had no idea who even recruits our area for UT because I've never had one of their coaches come through my door.
"I can tell you who recruits our school for Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Missouri and even Tennessee Tech, because I have personally seen them here and get phone calls and emails from those schools and others," added Fitzgerald, who played in the SEC at Auburn. "The only thing I ever heard from UT since Dooley was there was to advertise their camp and tell me how much it would cost."
The lack-of-communication complaint was echoed by all 37 coaches who responded to the poll, and each said the staffs under former coaches Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin seemed to care more about building a working relationship.
"To be honest, a lot of high school coaches in the state felt like Derek came across as arrogant," Fitzgerald added. "We talked about that at coaches' meetings around the state for several years, actually. It wasn't just in the Chattanooga area; it was coaches all over the state. Derek is highly intelligent, but it just came off as him proving how smart he is when he talks. He just has no people skills."
Fitzgerald admitted he began to sour on Dooley when he felt two former Rhea County players were mistreated during their brief UT careers. Josh Davis was an all-state punter who walked on and competed for the job under Kiffin. But shortly after Kiffin left, just before the start of spring practice, Dooley informed Davis he would not be needed even to compete for the job, feeling that prep All-Americans Matt Darr and Michael Palardy would provide enough depth at punter.
Davis transferred to Middle Tennessee State, and while Darr and Palardy have struggled the last two seasons, Davis has become an All-Sun Belt Conference punter and last week finished with a 48-yard average. Also, former offensive lineman Kevin Revis, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Vols, committed to Fulmer and played one year under Kiffin. But he was advised to transfer by Dooley and wound up starting every game this fall for UT-Chattanooga.
"Davis was a kid who knew he wouldn't get a scholarship as a punter but just wanted to compete," Fitzgerald said. "And Revis was a kid who bled orange. Even if he wasn't a starter, he was going to bust his butt to help that program any way he could because he loved it. My problem with those two situations was just how the kids were treated. It was disrespectful."
Ridgeland All-America safety Vonn Bell, the highest-rated prospect in the area, also felt disrespected as his recruiting process heated up. A four-star prospect this season, Bell already had several offers from FBS programs, including Georgia and Alabama, before Tennessee contacted him with an offer.
Bell also grew up a Vols fan, and while he still has UT on his list of finalists along with Alabama and Ohio State, he has yet to commit because of the lack of communication with UT's staff and the uncertainty that surrounded Dooley.
It is believed that Alabama and Ohio State, whose staffs have made Bell feel like a priority, moved ahead of the Vols as the recruiting process continued. Earlier this season, against Dalton, Alabama coaches were at the game to congratulate Bell, who had five catches for 271 yards and four touchdowns. Tennessee did not have a game that week but did not send a recruiter to the game.
"They were terrible," said one northwest Georgia coach who has six players currently on rosters at FBS programs but asked to remain anonymous. "All I can do is compare them with everybody else that recruits our kids, and they were not consistent. We have one kid they are recruiting now, and to be honest, if they had been courting him the way some of the other schools have, he would have already committed there. But they were not doing a very good job and keep slipping further down his list. I think they're going to lose him."
As of now, four of the state's top 25 prospects, as ranked by Rivals.com, have committed to Tennessee, while 14, including the top two, have committed to other programs. Memphis has by far the most talent on that list, with 16 of the top 25 in-state players, but UT has a commitment from just one of those.
The state's top prospect and only five-star recruit, Brentwood Academy receiver Jalen Ramsey, committed to Kiffin at Southern Cal.
Another area coach, whose program has produced multiple FBS and FCS signees over the past five years agreed, saying, "I have Vanderbilt come here quite a bit, and they've let it be known this is one of their areas to make a priority. Dooley didn't look at the Chattanooga area as a place they needed to own. We got the last courtesy call and actually had a graduate assistant instead of a position coach when they did call, so you certainly don't feel like a priority."
The Chattanooga area had at least one player sign with UT each year from 2002 to '10, including two years in which three area players signed with the Vols. That streak ended in 2011 under Dooley and UT hasn't signed an area player either of the last two seasons, despite having 12 players sign with FBS programs, including five to SEC schools.
The Vols do have a commitment from Bradley Central senior lineman Austin Sanders for the 2013 recruiting class. Sanders is rated the state's No. 6 overall prospect according to Rivals.com and is one of two area players ranked on that list. The other, Signal Mountain quarterback Reese Phillips, has committed to Kentucky.
Similar to Bell, Phillips grew up a UT fan and has been recruited by Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in addition to Kentucky. Tennessee did not recruit him.
"I never heard anything from Tennessee," Phillips said. "To be honest, it was very disappointing. That's my home-state school, so I had dreamed of going there. For them to never even send a representative or call to talk, it rubbed me the wrong way."
It didn't sit well with Eagles coach Bill Price, either.
"I didn't like that staff, to be honest," Price said. "I grew up in this state and I would go to the games about every week and wanted to support them. I'm a Tennessee fan, but we never heard anything from them. Not even a visit just to introduce who was recruiting our area or a call or anything. It was like they didn't care whether they had any relationship with us at all, so how would we ever feel good about sending a kid there once we had one they wanted?
"I've been coaching a long time and dealt with a lot of coaches at every level, and those guys were the worst as far as feeling like they wanted to work with you or have any relationship at all with the high school coaches."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...