Vols go to Plan B

When offensive lineman Austin Long of Memphis Briarcrest recently picked Georgia over Tennessee, Vol fans felt as if they'd been stabbed in the hand.

When offensive lineman Alex Bullard of Brentwood Academy picked Notre Dame over Tennessee a short time later, Vol fans felt as if they'd been stabbed in the heart.

While both wounds may be painful, they aren't necessarily fatal. Here's a little history lesson about in-state stars that might provide some relief:

I was a sports writer for The Knoxville Journal in 1979 when an in-state basketball prospect was the talk of Big Orange Country. Derrick Hord, a 6-6 forward from Bristol, earned recognition on both the Parade and McDonald's All-America teams. Vol fans assumed he'd sign with Tennessee, which was coming off a '78-79 season which saw rookie head man Don DeVoe whip Kentucky three times and notch the Vols' first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.

DeVoe recruited Hord hard but came up empty when the celebrated superstar picked the Big Blue, which – coincidentally, I'm sure – hired his high school coach that same year.

As you can imagine, Hord's decision to spurn the Big Orange caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth within the Vol Nation. Many fans wondered aloud: What would happen to the program now that Tennessee had allowed such a heralded homegrown hero to slip away?

Here's what happened: Having failed in his bid to land Hord, DeVoe switched to Plan B and signed a 6-6 forward from Marietta, Ga. His name? Dale Ellis.

Hord went on to have a nice career in Lexington, averaging 9.8 points per game, but Ellis went on to have a monster career in Knoxville. He averaged 17.5 points per game, earning first-team All-SEC recognition three times, earning SEC Player of the Year recognition twice and earning consensus All-America recognition as a senior. He then distinguished himself in the NBA from 1983-2001, making the all-star team several times and setting records with his 3-point shooting.

Although Hord's commitment to Kentucky turned Big Orange Country upside-down, his defection proved to be a blessing in disguise for Tennessee's basketball program. Plan B (Ellis) turned out to be a much better college player than Plan A (Hord).

That's basketball, you say. True, but the same scenario has played out many times in Vol football recruiting, as well. Consider the case of Leroy Thompson.

UT fans were utterly inconsolable when Thompson picked Penn State over the Vols in 1987. Thompson had rushed for 5,987 career yards at Knoxville's Austin-East High School and was rated the No. 1 prospect in America by The Dallas Morning News. (He was even more celebrated as a prep running back than some kid from Florida named Emmitt Smith.)

After failing to sign Thompson, Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors intensified his efforts to secure one of the stud rushers in the 1987-88 senior class. That stud turned out to be Chuck Webb of Toledo, Ohio.

Whereas Thompson went on to have a decent career at Penn State, Webb took Tennessee by storm. As a redshirt freshman in 1989 he posted the two greatest rushing performances in school history – 294 yards vs. Ole Miss and 250 vs. Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. He finished his rookie season with 1,236 yards and 12 touchdowns, despite splitting time with Reggie Cobb. Webb probably would've won a Heisman and rewritten the Vol record book had he not suffered what amounted to a career-ending knee injury in Game 2 of his sophomore year.

Certainly, losing in-state linemen the caliber of Long and Bullard to out-of-state schools is discouraging ... for head coach Phillip Fulmer and for Tennessee fans. Still, Derrick Hord and Leroy Thompson provide one valuable lesson: Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A.


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