Considering how bad were the basketball Vols against Memphis, we are indeed fortunate to have Tennessee football back in business.
Jeremy Pruitt and his helpers have been running full speed, here and there, in preparation for the NCAA early signing period.
As has been said many times, recruiting is the life blood of the college game. Capable coaches who can instruct, develop, refine and motivate players are very valuable. Brilliant strategists make a difference.
Players with size, speed, strength, smarts and enthusiasm matter most. They are identified as four- and five-stars and sometimes called thoroughbreds. That is valid. You don’t win the derby with a donkey.
The formal acceptance of scholarship offers is a critical time in football, the payoff for months or years of recruiting effort. The Volunteers have a great need for more and better talent. If they are ever to overtake Georgia, Florida, Alabama and LSU, a stronger, deeper roster will be the foundation.
The thought of recruiting takes me back to yesteryear, to Ray Trail, colorful line coach during the Doug Dickey and Bill Battle eras.
Trail arrived at UT under sad circumstances, as the got-to-have-somebody-now replacement for Charlie Rash, killed in the tragic train-car crash of mid-October 1965.
Trail had been an all-Southwest Conference guard when Arkansas was winning championships. He was a graduate assistant on Frank Broyles’ staff.
Ray exceeded my expectations. Back when sportswriters could observe practice, I saw him as a well-above average coach. Some really good Vols enhanced his reputation – Bob Johnson, Charles Rosenfelder and Chip Kell to name three.
I thought Trail was an exceptional traveling salesman. I think he thought so, too.
“All those coaches who went recruiting were in khaki pants and blue blazers. I set out to be different.”
Ray hit the small towns of the South like a cowboy straight out of the movies. His stallion was a sporty orange Pontiac convertible, white top, white leather interior, dual exhausts. There might have been a raccoon tail hooked to the antenna.
Ray’s persona was topped off by blue jeans, oversized belt buckle, cowboy hat, pointed-toe boots and a big 75-cent cigar.
When Ray Trail came calling, almost everybody knew he had arrived. So it was in Winchester, down Highway 64 near the Alabama line, when he was recruiting young Phillip Fulmer.
The Crimson Tide made a serious push but never became the talk of the town. Trail had that title. He made an impact.
His closing argument was classic.
“I got Phillip into this little room and I sat him down and explained the facts of life.
“If a Tennessee boy goes to Alabama and spends four good years, he’s still a Tennessee boy. Nothing special is going to happen to him.
“I said, ‘Phillip Fulmer, you are a Tennessee boy and if anything good is ever going to happen to you, it’s going to happen at the University of Tennessee.’”
By then, the cigar had burned down to a stump. Fulmer said OK so he could get some fresh air.
Trail went to Jasper to consider recruiting Eddie Brown. There was no competition. Eddie was a 170-pound single-wing tailback, too small for big-time football, but Trail had been watching.
“I told him in the spring before his senior year that if he got up to 180 by August, I’d give him a scholarship.”
Brown cleared some furniture from the family room and installed a set of weights. He lifted every day. When Trail returned, Brown weighed 181. Eddie became one of the better defensive backs and captains in Tennessee history. He also played for the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Rams.
Trail’s big catch was Condredge Holloway. Ray finished first by making all the right moves, touching all the bases and staying with the task.
He and that orange Pontiac made many trips to Huntsville, Ala. He was able to explain Tennessee advantages over Auburn. He was in the family home when Gov. George Wallace called to urge Holloway to choose Alabama.
“Condredge came back into the living room after the phone call. He said ‘Coach, can you believe that? George Wallace, the man who stood on the front steps and said there’ll never be a black guy enter the University of Alabama, calls me.’”
Indeed, Alabama was that interested but coach Paul Bryant was forthright. He admitted the Tide wasn’t ready for a black quarterback. Maybe Condredge could be a wideout or defensive back.
Finalists turned out to be Tennessee and the Montreal Expos. The then National League baseball team drafted Condredge as a shortstop in the first round.
There came a time when Trail lived dangerously. He and his family went on vacation in July with the No. 1 recruiting project still dangling. The head coach, Battle, was a nervous wreck.
Trail had a deal with Condredge.
“We shook hands and he promised he wouldn’t do anything until I came back.”
It wasn’t easy reaching the Trails during their backwoods holiday but Battle got three messages through with suggestions that Ray go immediately, as in now, to Huntsville.
“I told Coach Battle that if Condredge’s word wasn’t any good, he wasn’t worth the fuss.”
The day Trail returned to his UT office (and confirmed that he still had a job), Holloway called to say it was decision time. The Expos were to make their presentation and Condredge wanted Trail to be there. Ray said he would be out of place. Condredge said come.
Montreal’s Mel Didier, in suit and tie, offered a briefcase filled with money – but made a mistake. Trail remembers.
“As he was finishing, he said ‘Any money I give you is on top of the table. Any money Coach Trail gives you is under the table.’”
Condredge and his mother, Dorothy, were offended. They had been totally honest with all concerned. The recruiting race was over.
In the middle of the night, Trail drove home. He sang along with whatever WIVK was playing.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org