It had taken more than a year, covering thousands of miles in the family car and countless phone calls and text messages with prospective coaches, for Vonn Bell to reach his destination.
Standing behind a podium Wednesday with an auditorium filled with media, Ridgeland High School coaches, faculty and teammates, family members and even players from other schools, Bell fidgeted with his faux glasses and straightened his tie in the final seconds before going on ESPNU live to announce to the nation a decision he had reached two days earlier.
Restless nights had become all too frequent for Bell in the final days leading up to national signing day. Having cut his list of candidates to three several months ago, Bell said he mentally had narrowed his choice to Ohio State and Tennessee within the last week, and the weight of choosing between those two programs was affecting his sleep -- until two days ago before he was to announce.
"I just woke up in the middle of the night and just said to myself, 'I'm going to Ohio State,'" Bell said. "I was torn between the team I had grown up cheering for (Tennessee) and the team that I felt was closer to playing for a national championship (Ohio State).
"It was tough because I liked both programs and the coaches at both places. But I just felt more comfortable with Coach [Urban] Meyer because I had spent more time with him and his staff. When I woke up the other night, I prayed about what I was thinking, to make sure I was making the right choice. I just felt like God's voice was in my mind letting me know that's where I should go. It was like God was confirming that that's where he was leading me. After that, I felt good about it."
Ohio State picks up Tennessee's fumble
Vonn's father Vincent, who had played played outside linebacker at Murray State for Frank Beamer, didn't want his son repeating the mistakes of countless other recruits who had made commitments based on emotion, only to change their mind sand their pledges multiple times before signing day. He knew that type of waffling could make for a negative public perception.
"I'm old school and I told Vonn to look at this process like he would getting married," Vincent said. "You go through the dating process, then you pick the one you want to be with and you stick to it. You don't commit and then flirt with another program like some recruits do. You make a decision and then it's over. That's what a commitment means.
"If you're good enough, go somewhere that will help you reach your goal if you want to play professionally. Make it a business decision, because that's what it is for the programs."
Shortly after his own playing days had ended, Vincent turned down an offer to become a graduate assistant, and instead married Vanessa, his college sweetheart of two years. The couple moved to Topeka, Kan., when Vincent was offered a position as the director of the local YMCA's youth and family program, and their two sons were born during the frigid Topeka winters.
Eleven years ago the family moved after Vincent took a YMCA job in Chattanooga, and it was during that time, with Tennessee perennially among the SEC's top programs, that Vonn adopted the Volunteers as his favorite team. He dreamed of one day wearing the orange and white uniform, running through the "T" and playing in front of more than 100,000 fans.
But once his high school star took off during his junior season at Ridgeland, UT was one of the few teams that didn't seem to take notice. Georgia was the first program to offer Bell a scholarship, and Alabama followed. Days later, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley called Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis to extend an official offer to Bell. The Vols already had begun to lag behind, and once other college coaches began recruiting Bell, he quickly noticed the difference between the programs that made him feel wanted and UT, which he said rarely made any contact after the offer.
"To be perfectly honest, if UT had made the kind of push for Vonn that it did once Butch Jones took over, we wouldn't have had to have a big announcement for TV," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. "He would've already been committed and [Wednesday] would've just been the day he signed the papers.
"The difference came down to Ohio State having built a relationship for a year and UT having built one for about a month."
The number of offers reached more than 30 before the weather began to warm last year, so Bell and his family used spring break for a barnstorming tour of programs such as Texas, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Notre Dame and one unexpected stop at Ohio State. When Bell began to whittle his list to a more manageable number, he included Alabama because of the program's elite status and the persistence of its staff. He also kept Ohio State on his list because he couldn't forget the way his family was welcomed by the coaches and the comfort level he felt just talking with Urban Meyer. And he listed Tennessee because he still felt a fan's loyalty despite the program's struggles.
But as the 2012 season wound down and Ridgeland made its magical run to Georgia's Class AAAA state championship game, it became more apparent that the Vols were further away than ever from competing against the SEC's upper echelon. And Bell couldn't quite get past the lack of effort Dooley and his staff had exerted to build a relationship with him and his family. So by the time Dooley was fired after the next to last game of the season, Bell had spent almost a full year getting to know the staffs at Ohio State and Alabama.
"Tennessee was dead in the water when Coach Jones took over," Vincent said. "I'll give Coach Jones credit: He brought them to the point where it was a tough decision, but he had too much ground to make up. Vonn signing with Ohio State is all on Coach Dooley. UT would've locked him up as a junior if they had recruited him at all. All that time that UT wasn't recruiting him, Ohio State and Alabama were building a relationship to get him."
Decision from the head, not the heart
During his time at Florida, from 2005 to 2010, Meyer was a nemesis for Tennessee's football program. The Volunteers never beat Meyer's Gators, and as 2013 signing day kicked off in full force, he again proved to be a thorn in the side by swaying Bell. Meyer signed 25 players from 10 states and proved he's still able to dip down South to land big-time talent.
"Everything is already in place at Ohio State," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. "The coaching staff is proven. They were impressive by showing up in our locker room before and after the state championship game, and Coach Meyer sat with Vonn's mom during the game. They even had two assistants (defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and secondary coach Everett Withers) at our awards banquet. Every opportunity they had to have somebody here or in contact with Vonn, they did it."
Just after the last members of his signing class had faxed in their paperwork, Meyer told ESPN radio, "I asked my wife Shelley last night if she thought we'd get Vonn Bell, and she said no. The competitiveness started flowing right away, and I jumped on the phone with our guys and started working more to get him.
"We'll always have a presence in the South because of the level of play there. There are extremely fast and aggressive players in the South."
One of only three area players to earn a five-star rating in the 11 years Rivals.com has had its rating system, Bell was called by one Buckeyes recruiting website the "most important member of this year's class."
Ohio State's two starting safeties are both seniors, and one returning secondary player is coming off major knee surgery and the other has been considered inconsistent, which could open the door for Bell to earn early playing time. He admitted that was a factor in why he had eliminated Alabama, where he was told he likely would redshirt, and Meyer and his staff's continual communication was too much for new UT coach Butch Jones to overcome.
"Coach Jones will do wonderful things at UT, I think," Vincent said. "We just didn't have enough time to get to know him and his staff and reach that comfort level. The difference was you can look at Coach Meyer's history and see what he's done at the big-time level, and even last year going 12-0, while Coach Jones doesn't have the history anywhere besides Cincinnati yet. We wanted to minimize the risk for Vonn.
"Vonn wants to go somewhere to beat Alabama. He respects their program and what Coach Saban has built, but he wants to beat them. Ohio State is a lot closer to being able to do that than Tennessee right now."