By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At 7:00 a.m. on National Signing Day, Tennessee embarked on a mission to significantly reduce workplace productivity all across Big Orange Country.
Achieving that goal, also known at Tennessee’s National Signing Day show broadcast on UTSports.com, was the work of dozens of people led by a couple of familiar faces in VFL Film’s Maddy Glab and the Voice of the Tennessee Titans Mike Keith, along with two of the most popular VFLs around, Erik Ainge and Al Wilson.
See next Monday’s Focus for Alex Norman’s “Vols happy with Class of 2016”
The show spent more than six hours telling the story of signing day from the perspective of the staff inside the “War Room” and from the newest Vols with live interviews and announcements of their signings.
“This has been the most well-produced, all-hands-on-deck, more than just a television production that I’ve ever seen or been a part of,” said Ainge, a Vol quarterback from 2004-07. “I was very impressed with how the whole things went.”
Wilson was similarly blown away by the production, but also by getting an up-close look at the operation of head coach Butch Jones and his staff. It was a perspective that he helped convey to the viewers.
“This was awesome,” Wilson, a star linebacker on Tennessee’s 1998 National Championship team, said. “Being here and having the chance to be around this atmosphere and be around Coach Jones and his staff and to see their enthusiasm and how they feel about these guys is special. They love these kids like their own and they’re just as excited as the kids are.”
Having the opportunity to bring in two prominent alumni to take part in the signing day broadcast was another function of how Jones operates. From his first day on the job, Jones made connecting with former players and involving them in the program a priority.
Senior director of broadcasting Link Hudson thought there was no better way to connect the past with the future than by having Ainge and Wilson involved in signing day.
“That’s what Butch has done, he has welcomed back our VFL family,” Hudson said. “Those two guys in particular are highly regarded and felt very comfortable in this environment and clearly were very talented in their gifts on the game of football. It was a win-win for everybody.”
Midway though the broadcast, Keith, who covered Tennessee for WIVK radio and the Vol Network from the late 1980’s thru his move to Nashville in 1999, sat down with the two VFLs to recount their experiences of going through the recruiting process and their memories of NSD.
“I hadn’t thought about that day in many, many years,” Wilson said. “It brought back a lot of great memories. I just remember being so excited, everyone in Jackson was so excited for me. I remember just thinking that I was now a Tennessee Vol and its one of those feelings you can’t put a price on.”
Keith remembered it a little differently. Wilson had passed on doing interviews in the weeks leading to his signing day in 1995, leaving Keith with holes to fill in during his four-hour radio show at the time.
“Every day people wanted to know what was going on with Al Wilson and we couldn’t tell them,” Keith said. “We thought we had good sources and it turned out that our information was good, but we never knew for sure.”
Wilson did sign on the dotted line as the top-rated recruit in the state of Tennessee. He did so with the intention of playing safety in college. Head coach Phillip Fulmer and defensive coordinator John Chavis had a different idea, but let their prized recruit figure it out after a few weeks on campus.
“They waited until I got here on campus and let me play safety for a few weeks and then they moved me to linebacker,” Wilson recalled. “Without a doubt it was the best thing that ever happened to me. That’s why great coaches are great coaches, they see talent and they see where it needs to be. I’m still so happy I came to the University of Tennessee and made the decision that I did.”
Ainge came through the process nine years after Wilson and saw plenty of changes as his signing day approached and has seen even more since he joined the Vols in 2004. Despite the changes, the process still seems familiar, as does the set of attributes he sees in Jones and his staff.
“Back then, it was the same things that ultimately get recruits that this staff is doing,” Ainge said. “It’s relationships, it’s hard work, it’s relentless pursuit. That’s what I remember.
“I think they see a coaching staff that refuses to be denied. You have a coaching staff that will beat the door down until it’s right. It’s that way in recruiting, it’s that way in coaching, it’s that way in strength and conditioning. That comes out in the recruiting process.”
Keith was able to add the perspective of nearly two decades of experience in the NFL to what he can see in what is being built at Tennessee.
“I’m enthusiastic about Butch Jones and I’m enthusiastic about the energy he has brought and the way he does things the right way,” Keith said. “I’m just a graduate and a parent of a daughter that goes to school here that is proud to see it done the right way and to see that they’re winning.”
The mechanics of the show fell on the shoulders of producer and director Tom Githens, who helped organize a staff of dozens to produce a TV-quality production that drew thousands of live viewers from start to finish.
“This show was Tom Gitens,” Hudson said. “He deserves a lion’s share of the credit. There are so many other people behind the scenes, including students of the University of Tennessee that did a lot of work for us today. Pulling all of this stuff together technically and visually is a challenge and we had a lot of good people doing just that.”
After seeing the production last year, Keith had no qualms about getting involved. In fact, he didn’t even check the calendar before agreeing to take part.
“I’ve always understood how important recruiting was to Tennessee fans because I covered it in the 80s and 90s and have continued to follow it as a fan, but I never thought I would see a production like this,” Keith said. “I watched last year’s show and just thought it was so much fun, so when they asked me to do it, it took me about three seconds to say yes. I didn’t look to see if I could get the day off or if I had anything, I just wanted to do it.”
And like the rest of Vol Nation, who responded en masse on social media, Keith loved every minute of hearing from the Vol legends.
“There are so many stories, the books that could be written,” Keith said. “I could sit and listen to those guys for hours.”