Coach Zach Azzanni moved his family to Knoxville and built a house.
In his last four years of coaching, Azzanni’s three young daughters have never started and ended a year in the same place, due to their dad being a talented, sought-after coach. Tennessee’s new recruiting coordinator and his wife Julia want that pattern to end in Knoxville.
“We want this to be permanent,” says Azzanni, who has coached at Central Michigan, Florida, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin, and now the University of Tennessee, all since 2009. “People don’t really understand how hard it is, moving little kids around so much. I want them to grow up here.”
So the night before UT’s media day, the Azzannis moved into their newly constructed home, a sign of their confidence in East Tennessee as a long-term home.
“Coach Z” didn’t just come to Tennessee to build a house for his family, though. He has also been hard at work building a new foundation for the future of Tennessee football, where lately things have been much more sticks and straw than solid brick. Luckily, he is experienced in reconstruction.
Azzanni calls the process of rebuilding down programs “fun and exhilarating,” though sometimes frustrating. He talks about leading a down Western Kentucky program to its first home win in 20 games, and before that, joining then-first-time head coach Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, where the duo turned a 2-9 team with six consecutive losing seasons into a winning program (8-3) in just one year.
“We just love the process of getting in there and building from the ground up,” Azzanni says.
If that process is fun, then the 2013 version of the Tennessee Volunteers might just be this coach’s dream job.
In the wake of 2012’s brutally disappointing season, the Vols have said goodbye to nine starters, including the offensive players responsible for almost all of Tennessee’s 5,711 yards and 434 points. Outside of a decorated and experienced offensive line, the 2013 edition of the Big Orange is young, inexperienced, suffering from a lack of depth at almost every position, and facing one of the most challenging schedules in all of college football.
Yet where Tennessee fans see dark times, Azzanni and the rest of the staff hired by new head coach Butch Jones see an opportunity to lay a foundation for a new, stronger version of the football program.
Since Jones arrived in Knoxville last December, any sound bite from a UT coach or player regarding the state of the program has been almost certain to include the word “family.”
“The coaches work hard to make the environment around us feel like home, and that makes everybody feel comfortable and want to get better,” says junior wide receiver Devrin Young. He describes a staff that stresses lessons as simple as “If you pass somebody in the hall, you speak and treat them good, whether its a coach, player, or recruit. You make them feel comfortable and welcome.”
The new widespread attitude around the program has sent shock waves through recruiting. Tennessee’s 2014 class is currently ranked the No. 1 group in the entire nation, according to Rivals.com and Scout.com, and isranked as the top group in the SEC by ESPN. (For some perspective, UT has not had a top-five recruiting class since 2007.) This year, among the massive influx of talent is a bumper crop of recruits with blood ties to the Vols, such as Dillon Bates (son of Vol great Bill Bates), earning 2014 the title “the legacy class.”
So what’s been the big difference in this year’s recruiting efforts?
“When a recruit and their family come here, they can feel it. We’re recruiting kids that we genuinely care about developing, not just as players, but as men. Parents can tell that we’re not just going to turn our backs on them when practice is over,” says Azzanni. “My players are gonna know my wife and kids. I’m gonna know how my players are doing in English class, and we’re gonna be there if somebody had a fight with his girlfriend and needs to talk about it. We’re gonna care about these guys and push them to be excellent people. And a lot of programs are selling that, but when these families come here, they see that it’s real.”
Azzanni and staff are aware that SEC schools (and college football at large) have a reputation as football factories, multi-million dollar businesses that do whatever they have to do to get the players, win, and push them out the door. In a few weeks, Tennessee will play Oregon, which is currently on NCAA probation due to recruiting violations. The problems stemmed from 2011 payments to Willie Lyles, one of many rogue high-school talent scouts who accept large payments to funnel talent to schools.
“It is obviously big business and winning is important, but we got into this business to guide these kids as people, and the only way we’re going have the program we want at Tennessee and get everything we want out of this team is to be genuine, legitimate guys and really live it,” Azzanni says.
For what it’s worth, since the current staff’s arrival in December, negative attention for the team seems to be low, with no major incidents to date. Whether that is a coincidence or not, fans will welcome it as a stark contrast to the previous three coaches. (In particular, the NCAA found that Lane Kiffin committed 12 recruiting violations from January to October 2009.)
And so, as 2013’s college football season and the Butch Jones era begin in Knoxville, the Azzannis settle into their new house. And Tennessee football may finally have found a new sense of family.