``Five years ago, when I first came here, it was a little bit shady,'' said Memphis' head football coach of recruiting in Memphis. ``Now we have a great athletic director for Shelby County. It has really cleaned up a lot.
``To be honest, it's fun to recruit in Memphis now. When I was at Clemson, I wouldn't even come over here. It was that bad.''
Now that the recruiting cesspool has been cleansed, it's still difficult to recruit Memphis, but for a different reason.
While West is frank about the cheating that occurred in Memphis a few years ago, he's also honest when it comes to the talent that comes from West Tennessee.
``You can't just win with Memphis kids,'' West said. ``There's not enough talent here. They have a tendency to overrate these players. We try to take two or three a year, depending on what there is here.''
West targets the media for overhyping Memphis area players.
``Everybody wants these kids to be really good,'' said West, a former Tennessee player and assistant coach.
Without mentioning a name, West said there was a Memphis player a couple of years ago that was recruited by Southern Cal and LSU and signed with Tennessee. After not qualifying academically to play at Tennessee, he later signed with Ole Miss.
``The guy is not good enough to play, but he was highly rated,'' West said. ``They (media) made a big hullabaloo about him. We didn't offer him. … I think the high school kids here get overrated.''
West didn't mention a name, but he was probably talking about linebacker Todd Cox, considered one of the state's top prospects a couple of years ago.
West's point is well taken. About a dozen years ago, Willie Guy was rated the No. 1 prospect in Tennessee. He signed with Iowa and did little in college. About a decade ago, the Vols signed touted receiver Kevin Taylor. He was a bust and transferred.
So where does West go for players? Below the state of Tennessee. He hits north Mississippi, north Alabama and north Georgia and finds plenty of players.
``It's amazing,'' West said. ``If you draw the state of Tennessee underneath our state and see how many players come out of that area, it's unbelievable. So we have to be good in what I call the state under the state.''
``First of all, we have to do a tremendous job of evaluating,'' West said. ``But I think the big schools have to, too. A lot of the so-called big schools are into the so-called ratings. You have to be a four- or five- or six-star recruit. They'll pass up some good players because they weren't rated that high.''
While West thinks Memphis players are overrated, he said he maintains a good relationship with high school coaches and feels he has a better shot at landing blue-chip prospects in his back yard than when he first arrived.
``I don't expect high school coaches to send us their players, OK, but I do expect – and I told them this -- a level playing field,'' West said.
``We're not coming into your school and you tell us, `No, those are SEC-type players; you can't recruit those, but I've got these down here.' Well, that ain't us. We're going to recruit the good ones. All we're asking for is a level playing field. I think they appreciate that.''
West has been a good enough recruiter to help Memphis win 24 games the past three years – the most in program history. Memphis has won eight games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the early 1960s and has played in three consecutive bowl games – a program first.
The impetus for the success was a touted running back from Arkansas, DeAngelo Williams. Williams committed to Arkansas but had second thoughts. Seventeen days after signing day, he signed with Memphis. He became the NCAA all-time all-purpose yardage leader and a first-round NFL draft choice.
``He's the main reason we went from average to below average to a program that's won 24 games in the last three years, played in three straight bowl games and won two,'' West said. ``He's a tremendous football player. What separates him is he's character plus off the field. I think that made him attractive to a lot of NFL teams because you don't have to worry about this guy when he leaves the practice field.''
Asked if he's got any promising running backs to replace Williams, West gives a one-word answer: ``No.''
West added somberly: ``We'd be lucky to have another one like him.''
West said Williams reminded him of a former Tennessee great, Chuck Webb, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in his only full season with the Vols. Injuries curtailed a promising career.
West's next step is to get his program to the nine-win level. It's just one more game, but it's a huge leap.
``I think the program is really on solid ground,'' West said. ``In saying that, we all know in today's game you could go South in a hurry.
``We've got this program at eight wins. It will be really hard, and it will be fun, but our challenge is to take it from eight wins to nine or 10.''
Sears Makes Playboy Team
Tennessee offensive tackle Arron Sears has been selected to the Playboy All-America team.
Sears, a senior, participated in the photo shoot in Phoenix last weekend.
Sears was not initially selected for the Playboy team but when a lineman was deemed ineligible for this season, Sears was chosen.