KNOXVILLE — Back in August, Tennessee players and coaches gathered inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. It was business as usual. Speeches, film, X’s and O’s.
Then there was a rasp at the door.
Stares darted to the entrance. Players crawled to the edge of their vinyl-covered chairs. The door flung open. Curt Maggitt entered, donning the Vols’ new Smokey gray attire.
The room erupted.
Players shot up, clapping and hollering. A couple even trotted down the stadium-style venue to hug Butch Jones. The excitement was obvious. But that was a tempered reaction compared to the one on Saturday.
The outbreak in August came from a room filled only with the Tennessee football team. Not a stadium filled to its brim. A stadium housing 60-plus recruits – the so-called “bricks” in Jones’ masterplan to resurrect Tennessee football.
The new uniforms, the atmosphere, the game – it all created the perfect recruiting storm, one as angry as the Vols’ stormy gray garb.
Tennessee recruits were seeing gray post-game. And loved it. Every last one of them.
“I thought they looked amazing,” Tennessee commit Vic Wharton said.
The shadowy gray jerseys and pants sparked controversy throughout Vol Nation when they were unveiled that sweltering August afternoon. Sure, no mattresses burned, but the jerseys were polarizing nonetheless.
There was an outcry of haters. Those who thought the gray defied traditions. There were some who welcomed the splash in Tennessee’s traditional color palette.
There was a clear divide — a rift — carving its way through Tennessee’s fan base.
But there was only one reaction from recruits on Saturday afternoon turned evening.
“I loved them,” Class of 2015 four-star quarterback Blake Barnett said.
Barnett’s words were parroted in one way or another by every wide-eyed prospect trickling out of the Gate 21 tunnel.
“I love ‘em. They’re real nice. Like I absolutely love them,” Class of 2017 running back Maleik Gray said. “I wish I could suit up in one of those right now.”
In today’s recruiting world, alternative jerseys are as necessary as championship banners and state of the art facilities.
“If you had to put a top-10 list that the prospective student-athletes ask you, in the top three would be uniforms,” Jones said in August.
Tennessee was behind the curve in that regard. But by the accounts of all the recruits, Jones righted the wrong just in the nick of time.
“I thought it was different and a good change,” Barnett continued. “I think you need to change things up every now and then. I’m glad they wore them for my visit. I think it made the game and everything better. Glad I didn’t miss them.”
There will still be naysayers. There always will be. But the effect the new jerseys had on recruits came across loud and clear, perhaps even more so than the feverish 102,455 fans belting verse after verse of Rocky Top.
No, Tennessee’s new jerseys didn’t resurrect quarterback Justin Worley. The gray also didn’t cure Worley of his third down woes, as the junior went 9-of-12 passing for 97 yards, tacking on a touchdown and six first downs on third down alone. But they made his performance that much more important.
“They couldn’t have picked a better game to break them out,” Wharton told InsideTennessee. “That game paired with those jerseys, it was awesome.”
Forget the crowd. Forget the near upset against sixth-ranked Georgia. Something as small as a jersey change can go a long way in the mind of a high school boy.
“Those were real, real nice,” four-star defensive tackle Andrew Williams said. “All gray, yeah, I loved ‘em. I think all the recruits did and you could tell the fans did too. That might have been my favorite –”
Williams paused mid sentence, glancing out the corner of his eyes to collect his thoughts.
“I mean,” Williams continued, “what you wear doesn’t win games. Winning is what matters, but looking good never hurts.”