At the end of westwords, on Mondays and other days now and then, is an invitation to readers to say what they think or ask about anything. This was in my gmail inbox after the Gator Bowl:
What do you consider the most interesting event in Jeremy Pruitt’s first two years?
Easy answer – the recruitment of Henry To’o To’o.
That was complex.
Tennessee had its best traveling salesman, Brian Niedermeyer, on the case.
Alabama had an edge, a perfect connection, Tosh Lupoi, inside linebacker coach, another tenacious recruiter who just happened to have played at the very famous high school, De La Salle in Compton, Calif., where To’o To’o was a five-star star.
Niedermeyer, tireless and very creative, touched all the bases. He even flew all night after that awful 2018 loss to Vanderbilt and spent Sunday morning with the To’o To’o family at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He didn’t understand a word of the worship service. It was in Tongan. Henry is half-Samoan and half-Tongan.
I don’t know about Lupoi but, even without being in church, he was ahead in the recruiting race. Tosh was part of the world record 151-game winning streak at De La Salle. The school has an unofficial brotherhood, a fellowship of past and present players.
“Tosh was everything to me,” said To’o To’o. “He was a De La Salle brother, basically.”
Henry thought going to Alabama under Tosh’s wings would have been perfect.
Perfection went away precisely one year ago. Without giving it a thought, Dee or Jimmy Haslam did Tennessee a significant favor. Former Alabama quarterback Freddie Kitchens became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Freddie reached down to Alabama to hire Tosh Lupoi as an assistant. Henry got the news on social media.
Iese To’o To’o said his son had been pretty much set on the Crimson Tide and that Tosh going away messed up everything.
After considerable thought, it was decided Henry’s best chance to further his career was still in the Southeastern Conference. As the SEC promotional slogan says, it just means more.
Tennessee moved up a notch.
Before national signing day, Pruitt and Niedermeyer made a last visit to California. There were no remaining questions. They just spent a couple of hours with the father and mother. They watched some NBA on TV. The coaches and family members went to Mel’s Diner. Henry had his favorite, chicken and waffles.
Great trip, family unity theme, time well spent, certainly worth the effort.
Oops, almost forgot to mention that the Vols have their own member of the De La Salle brotherhood, Kevin Simon, linebacker in the early 2000s, former NFL player and scout, now in player development on Pruitt’s staff. Alas, that job comes with NCAA restrictions. He is not permitted to recruit off campus.
Background: Kevin and Tosh were once teammates. Kevin was part of that same historic winning streak.
Interesting, very interesting that Iese To’o To’o made the connection, adjusted his thinking and reapplied the De La Salle bond. He saw it as a fraternity, once you’re in, you’re going to reap the benefits for the rest of your life.
I do believe the father concluded that Kevin Simon was the missing link, that he could be counted on to help Henry if needed, that he would never give up on Henry, no matter what. That must have been a very comforting thought.
Henry surprised some left coast people when he signed with Tennessee. If not Alabama, they thought maybe Washington. Far-away Knoxville sounded like another world.
Henry later explained the attraction.
“You never know in recruiting who you can really trust, but Coach Pruitt is someone my family and I trust completely. He’s a genuine dude. He tells you the truth. He’ll do anything for you. He’s exactly the kind of coach I wanted to play for.”
As we all know, Henry the freshman really played. On some Saturdays, he might have been Tennessee’s best player. He’s got a quick trigger. He can read and go. He’s an excellent tackler. He doesn’t run around blocks. He’ll hit. He is fearless. He has leadership capabilities. He loves the game.
To’o To’o projects as a key man in the 2020 defense. Oldtimers think he might grow up to be a linebacker combination of Jack Reynolds and Steve Kiner, tough guy against inside runs and maybe swift enough to discourage slot receivers and chase down sweeps.
That might be a reach. Hacksaw is an NFL legend. Kiner is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.