Through it all, Joe Whitt has remained true to himself, his faith and his belief in honesty and integrity. His family, his friends, generations of football players and coaches who have come and gone know that, when Joe Whitt looks you in the eye, what he tells you is the truth. Not most of the time. Not some of the time. All the time.
"The number one thing in any business, whether it's recruiting, coaching, dealing with people, whatever, is telling the truth," Whitt says. "When you don't tell the truth, you don't have anything to stand on. How many times do you have to lie for people not to trust you? I say one."
That's the way Whitt was raised in Prichard, Ala., in a time when opportunities were limited or nonexistent for black people That's the way he lives his life. "Times change, but the fundamentals never change," Whitt says. "The truth never changes. People change. The key thing is to always be true to what you believe is right and never let anyone change that."
Joe Whitt gives pointers to linebacker Dontarrious Thomas.
Whitt is widely renowned as a recruiter. He is respected in his profession as an exceptional coach. He is loved by those who played for him, men who will tell you he demands all you have to give and gives all he has in return. He loves the great players, the ordinary players and the walk-ons. Their pictures decorate his office at the Auburn Football Complex. They call and come visit, often bringing their own children.
"That's the wonderful part of it," Whitt says. "You meet so many great kids and great families. As I look back over the years, I can't think of one family I've dealt with that you say, ‘Boy, I don't want to see them again.' When you see them 10-15 years later and you still have that bond, that's a very special thing."
Whitt, who was an outstanding player at Alabama State, came to Auburn from Montgomery's Robert E. Lee High School as part of Pat Dye's first coaching staff in 1981. Today, he is an Auburn man through and through. He has turned down numerous opportunities to leave. "Auburn is where I want to be," Whitt says. "I made a choice that this is where I want to be."
From Dye to Terry Bowden to Bill Oliver to Tommy Tuberville, head coaches have wanted Whitt to be there, too. "I think you are lucky when you are asked to stay," Whitt says. "In my case, I feel blessed to be asked to stay. Auburn is my school. I love the university. I love Auburn people. That, in a sense, puts a lot of pressure on you because you want to do well. It's a family thing. Everybody in my family loves this school."
There is no better ambassador for Auburn. When he goes on the road, he recruits with his heart. And he does it the right way. "You have to believe in yourself, believe in your university and believe in the people around you," Whitt says. "And then you have to believe in the kids you are recruiting. You're not going to get them all, but you have to have a philosophy and a belief and stick with it."
Whitt is bothered by college football's reputation for sleazy tactics. Recruiting is hard and tough, he says, but not dirty. "I think recruiting gets a bad rap," Whitt says. "I don't think this is a dirty business. I think 99 and 9/10 percent of the kids and families you deal with are as honest as the day is long. I think the perception is a lot worse than reality."
It's easy for black coaches to be saddled with the stigma or being a recruiter more than a coach. It doesn't fit Whitt. It never has. "That doesn't really bother me, because I know first and foremost I am a football coach and a person who deals with kids," Whitt says. "I don't think anybody in the country has a better feel for dealing with young men, black and white.
"You have to be able to expand from recruiting to coaching, to dealing with academics, with growing up. There was a time when I thought of myself as a brother. As I get older, I'm more of a father figure. The bottom line is you want kids to come to college, graduate and be the best they can be. You want those who have the ability to go to the NFL to make it and for them all to get good jobs and be good citizens.
"In between all that, you want to win a lot of ball games."