KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 12: Lane Kiffin, head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers talks in the press conference after a game against the UCLA Bruins on September 12, 2009 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. UCLA beat Tennessee 19-15. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
Written by: Bob Gilbert, Gannett News Service
Details of the Tennessee Vols' nefarious scheme to use pretty co-eds to recruit high school football players are exposed in a new book by award-winning CBS and HBO investigative sports reporter Armen Keteyian.
"The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football" examines how former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin in 2009 sent so-called hostesses to South Carolina to flirt with highly-sought prospects.
The book, co-written by Keteyian and Sports Illustrated's Jeff Benedict, quotes one of the co-eds, Lacey Pearl Earps, whom Vol coaches nick-named "The Closer" because of her ability to connect with high school recruits.
Earps is a Blackman High graduate.
"Our job was to flirt with them." Earps said of the student hostesses known as "Orange Pride." Tennessee's school colors are orange and white.
The Orange Pride, since disbanded, was an official university organization which helped convince recruits to choose Tennessee by befriending them and attending their high school games. It is an NCAA violation for a university organization to recruit prospective athletes off-campus.
When the NCAA began snooping, UT euphemistically labeled the Orange Pride "ambassadors."
The Keteyian-Benedict book describes the "hostess business," where "pretty, personable, well-trained" college women are used as bait to lure top talent.
"Even if they don't have physical relationships with high school players (and some certainly do), they are encouraged to engage in at least pseudo romantic relationships" through social media and text for months on end, says YahooSports reporter Dan Wetzel, who wrote "Death to the BCS."
"All of this comes with the approval and encouragement of athletic department officials and highly-paid coaches."
Keteyian and Benedict paint an ugly picture of obscene recruiting tactics in big-time college football.
In 2008, the nation's top running back recruit, Bryce Brown of Kansas, phoned Vol coach Lane Kiffin and said he wanted to make a last-minute unofficial visit to Knoxville.
Kiffin called Earps, the Orange Pride captain, who had hosted Brown during a previous visit and was in constant contact with him, the book says.
"I asked (Brown) what he wanted to do," Earps said Kiffin told her. "(Brown) said, 'Coach, all I want to do is hang out with Lacey.'"
So, according to the book, Kiffin gave Earps $40 for expenses. She hung out with Brown for several days, and he signed with the Vols (but after one season transferred to Kansas State, and later left there).
The next fall, Earps told the authors, Kiffin strongly encouraged her and another hostess to make what turned out to be an NCAA-illegal visit to a high school game in Duncan, S.C.
At the game, Earps and other UT co-eds held a sign for some potential recruits, had their photos taken and became the center-piece of a New York Times expose and an NCAA investigation. One photo showed Earps and Corey Miller, now a senior starting defensive end for Tennessee.
When the scandal broke, the book says, Earps said she was hung out to dry by the university and the Vols' coaching staff. She said it was Kiffin who endorsed the idea of traveling 200 miles to the high school game. Kiffin's brother-in-law, Vol assistant coach David Reaves, provided $40 in gas money for the trip.
Earps says hostesses routinely were encouraged to do whatever was necessary, including obvious NCAA violations, to lure recruits.
Earps said she never had a physical relationship with recruits, but admitted she led them to believe she was available.
"These are high school boys. They have one thing on their mind," she told the authors.
"From the athletic department's perspective, it didn't matter how the recruit got there (to campus), whatever it took. A lot of people turned a blind eye. That was very unsettling to me."
Kiffin, now at Southern Cal, piled up a mountain of NCAA recruiting violations during his one year at Tennessee.
Wetzel reported that one of Kiffin's Vol assistants, Willie Mack Garza, wired $1,500 to talent scout Willie Lyles in the summer of 2009 to reimburse Lyles for money he paid to have five-star tailback Lache Seastrunk visit the Tennessee campus.
Schools are allowed to pay for players' official visits, but what Kiffin did was considered an unofficial Seastrunk visit and thus a substantial recruiting violation. Seastrunk wound up at Oregon, but now is a starter at Baylor.
Kiffin's recruiting practices at Tennessee resulted in 12 violations. The NCAA cited Kiffin for "failure to monitor" his program. Tennessee was placed on a three-year NCAA probation until August 2015, but Kiffin escaped punishment.
Tennessee lost four official visits and cannot provide recruits with free tickets for the first two conference games this season - Florida on Sept. 21 and Georgia on Oct. 5.
Columnist Bob Gilbert, a former Associated Press writer, retired University of Tennessee news director and author of the Bob Neyland biography, can be reached at rwgilbertcharter.net