Tennessee coach Butch Jones watches his team play Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Garry Jones, File)
It usually turns more than a few heads when a top high school recruit commits to a struggling football program.
There are many reasons, including the school’s proximity to home, a relationship with a recruiter, the system the staff runs or maybe a new coach.
Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have not had a lot of success recently — absent from bowls the past two years and going a combined 9-27 last season — but enter Wednesday’s national signing day having landed some of the schools’ best recruiting classes ever.
Kentucky’s class, ranked 13th by Rivals.com., includes 6-foot-5, 380-pound defensive tackle of Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky., a top prospect who turned down Alabama and Notre Dame to play for a Wildcats program that hasn’t won a Southeastern Conference game since 2011 and is 4-20 the last two years.
Second-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said prospects don’t just look directly at the wins and losses.
“They fully understand that we’re in the process of building a program, and I think the big thing is keeping those prospects around us seeing what our plan is and seeing how we’re developing that and what we plan on doing,” Stoops said. “This has been one of the most unique experiences as far as recruiting goes that I’ve ever been around. The record doesn’t even come up.
“They believe in what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Instilling that belief needs to start at home.
Tennessee’s Butch Jones declared at his introductory news conference in December 2012 that the Vols “will own our state” with him as the coach.
After signing just two of the state’s top nine prospects last year, Jones and his staff have received verbal commitments from five of the state’s top six players according to 247 Composite, which takes the ratings of all the major recruiting services into consideration.
Jones, who replaced Derek Dooley, is coming off last year’s 5-7 finish, and his staff has hit the roads to connect with players and coaches at several instate high schools. The result is a No. 4 ranking by Rivals.com.
“Somewhere along the line that got lost,” said Zach Azzanni, Tennessee’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. “I don’t know where or how or what exactly happened. But we really tried to rekindle that fire with our instate prospects to get them to understand when you’re Tennessee born, you bleed orange from the day you’re born. ... I think we’ve been able to convince quite a few of them.”
Virginia’s Mike London has also been able to keep some five-star talent at home.
Though the fifth-year coach’s future with the Cavaliers was questionable after going 2-10 last season, he’s expected to land a top-40 class, including Andrew Brown, a defensive tackle from Chesapeake who was also named Gatorade national player of the year.
London stresses to prospects the opportunity to play right away and the chance to lead the program back to respectability. He also drives home the fact that players can earn a degree from one of the nation’s top public universities, no matter what happens on the field.
“What atmosphere, what opportunity, what environment would allow you to continue on to be what you want to be outside of the football arena?” London asked. “When you have a group of young men that are highly talented and have that type of mentality, want those types of goals, it’s my job to make sure that I craft it with the message that I hopefully have been consistent in.”
Building a relationship with a player during the recruiting process can also hurt a school. If the coach leaves, often the talented class of recruits he has wooed falls apart.
Vanderbilt is the latest to feel the sting after a coaching change.
Several prospects decided to follow coach James Franklin to Penn State when he took the job in Happy Valley last month, Before Franklin’s exit, the class was rated as 24th. As of Monday, Vandy’s class had dropped to 81st with 15 commitments — fewest in the SEC. That would be the lowest class ranking since Franklin’s first class weeks after he was hired was rated No. 70 in 2011.
Derek Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator, knew what he was up against when he took the job.
When he was introduced on Jan. 18, he said, “most of our young men wanted to know who their head coach was going to be ... Young men can be nervous about the process when they don’t know. Once they know, the resolve comes back.
“I think you’ll like what you see on signing day.”
That of course, is what every coach in the country hopes to be able to say Wednesday.
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz Jr., in Charlottesville, Va., Steve Megargee in Knoxville, and Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.