JACKSONVILLE – For all the ways recruiting has been turned upside down in college athletics, these are kinder, gentler times in at least one respect.
On Thursday, Jacksonville High basketball forward Cade Phillips announced a commitment to Tennessee. And good for him, making that decision without a single care as to who else might want him to put a ball in a basket while wearing different colors. He'll wear orange. Anyone who doesn't like it can wear something else.
There was a time when a high school kid choosing the archrival of his home-state school was a lot more complicated.
Phillips' father, former Alabama quarterback John David Phillips, remembers that time. An Anniston native, he came down to Alabama and Tennessee in his recruitment, and recalls then-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer trying to convince him that a leap from a crimson state to an orange uniform wouldn't be such a big deal.
Phillips knew better.
He remembers Eric Locke, a Tennessee native, of Murfreesboro, who crossed the state border at a time when recruits were far more reticent to do so. Alabama landing Locke, a coveted wide receiver, was considered an epic recruiting steal at one time. And his decision didn't sit well at all with Vols fans in his home state. Phillips and Locke were Alabama teammates in 1998, Locke's only season with the Crimson Tide before he scurried back across the border with a transfer to back to Tennessee.
Local pressure on recruits isn't what it used to be, and that's a good thing.
"With the way the transfer portal is, it's not as bad now. You look on the football side and Alabama's got a good linebacker (Henry To'oTo'o) who was at Tennessee not long ago. I think the portal has numbed it a little bit," said the elder Phillips. "So I'm grateful for that. And we raised him to be his own kid, since he was tiny. I'm insanely proud that he's done his own thing."
The transfer portal, indeed, has had that effect. But long before the portal, local heat on recruits was turned down in other ways, too. Powerhouse schools don't protect in-state talent as fiercely as they once did. With the dawning of the internet 30 years ago, and the expansion of TV distribution, top programs developed more easily into national brands with national reach. They can now nab a Johnny Five-Star from thousands of miles away more easily, and in turn, keeping the home-state star at home has gotten harder. An archrival recruiting in a bordering state used to set off fox-in-the-henhouse alarms.
Fans rabid enough to feel ill will toward a kid who won't play for their team are still around, mostly lurking behind keyboards and spewing trash anonymously on social media. They were once a lot more bold, a lot more influential, and a lot more problematic for kids who wanted nothing more than to make up their own minds.
"If you look all over Twitter, social media, that's all you heard," Cade said following the announcement, wearing full orange in the Jacksonville High School library.
Phillips' choice, in past eras, would've been made all the harder by his triple-legacy status: his father played quarterback at Alabama, his mother, Reagan, played UA women's basketball, and his grandfather, John, was a star defensive lineman for the Crimson Tide in the 1970s. Cade described himself as independent, and maybe a little stubborn, two attributes he would've needed by the truckload to make the same choice in his father's day.
John David, for his part, acknowledged he's got a new color to get used to. He'll introduce orange into his wardrobe in "baby steps," he said, donning a Tennessee T-shirt at his son's announcement, but without the full orange: black, with only orange lettering.
"I know there's always going to be hate with decisions like this, no matter what the decision was," Cade said. "I know some people won't like it, but that just adds a little extra fun, I guess."
And fun is all it should be.
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Cade Phillips broke an Alabama legacy by picking Tennessee basketball