|Thursday, October 10
Updated: October 17, 10:03 AM ET
Tennessee climbs into my Top 5
By Tom Zbikowski with Wayne Drehs
Special to ESPN.com
In the last week and a half, another perennial national championship contender has flattered me with its interest. In a way, it's even more mind-boggling than the other two in that it isn't a school from the Midwest.
The Vols came into the picture just after my last diary entry, Sept. 25. Like most schools, Tennessee had been sending mail along, but hadn't called, so I didn't think much of it. But one night, when I got home from a TV interview on a Chicago-area cable channel my Mom was on the phone with assistant coach Mike Barry.
A week later I came home and my Dad said that Coach Fulmer had called. Now, to have one of your very first conversations with a school to be with its head coach is quite a surprise.
I finally spoke with Coach Fulmer and let me say, I wasn't considering Tennessee at all before they showed interest, but I'm seriously going to consider it now. That's a school that plays some serious big-time football. They're good every single year and you know you're going to be competitive.
Anytime a place of that caliber shows interest, you have to listen. They've probably climbed into my Top 5, though if big-time programs like theirs keep popping up like this, my Top 5 is quickly going to expand into a Top 20.
Iowa continues to send the most letters. It seemed like these past weeks, I got an extra few hand-written notes from Coach Ferentz, which is cool. And the Hawkeyes looked real impressive in their last two wins over Penn State and Purdue. Some people might think it's hard for a school like Iowa to compete with Tennessee and those places, but it isn't.
You have to remember, the Tennessees and Nebraskas are stacked with superstar players. If things don't work out with you, they'll bring somebody else right in and you'll sit. They're just loaded with talent. At a place like Iowa, they don't get the same number of blue chip talents, so you have to figure the coaches are that good to keep those programs winning.
Last Friday, Illinois assistant Mike Mallory came to watch me practice. Coach Barry stopped by school during the day on Friday, though he didn't stay for practice. And on Wednesday, an assistant from Michigan State was at practice. I didn't talk to him, but I bumped into Coach Barry and waved. NCAA rules prohibit talking to a coach when he's on campus, so you really can't say much of anything at all.
Most of the time, when coaches come to school, they sit in the coaches office and watch film, talk with Coach Roberts and the rest of the high school staff and try to gather as much information as they can about me. Usually, they have you walk by to size you up, too. They try not to make it obvious, with the rules and stuff, but you know that's what they're doing.
On the field, things have been going great as well. We beat our arch-rival Prospect two weeks ago, we're ranked No. 5 in the Chicago Tribune area rankings, and I was named Tribune High School Athlete of the Month.
The highlight had to be the Prospect game. When we took the field, there were an estimated 9,000 people in the stands. There were a ton of people criticizing me, picking on me and yelling "Overrated." I couldn't help but flashback to my fight in Ireland a few years back against the Ulster champion. There, some 1,000 Irishmen were cheering against me. Since then, when people talk about me or try to disrupt me, I become that much more driven.
On our third play from scrimmage, we hit a 40-yard pass and the overrated chants fell dead silent. It was like a big right hook. On defense, we had six sacks in the first half and held them to 16 yards of offense. Though we struggled late and let them back in the game, all in all we played well in our 20-14 win. It was great to get that monkey off our back. And I'm sure we'll see Prospect again once the playoffs start in a few weeks.
In other recruiting news, my Mom not only talked to Coach Barry last week, but also spoke with Frank Solich from Nebraska. They talked for almost 45 minutes. I guess it's one of those things where the coaches call, she answers the phone and they just start talking. The coaches like talking to her.
But once they talk to her, they can't call back that week per NCAA rules, so I have to call them. Which is interesting. The coaches at some schools -- like Nebraska, for instance -- have given me their office phones, home phones and even cell phones. Plus, most schools have a toll-free 800 number.
I have the cell numbers for some Notre Dame coaches as well. And Coach Fulmer gave me his home number last week. But Coach Solich and Willingham the only guys who have given me a home and cell number.
It's kinda fun. And it means something to me. It's got to. I mean, these guys are the head coaches of major college football programs. For them to not only take time out of their busy schedules and their busy lives to call me, but then give me a way to interrupt their day again, is incredible.
After this process, I thought I'd hate coaches. But after talking with them and dealing with them, I have a lot more respect for what they have to do. And that's why I feel so selfish when I tell them not to bother me. Or that I'm in season right now and not making any decisions until singing day. It's why I can't say no. These guys have their own seasons, their own lives and after they're through with me, they have to call 30 other Tommy's out there to call.
So just say No? I wish it were that easy.
Tom Zbikowski: I don't think it's really helped me with football much at all. It was just fun. That was a time back when I was wrestling a lot, so working with Royce, learning how to fight off your back, different choke holds, things like that was really cool. And it helped a lot in wrestling. Once I got somebody into a certain position I knew the match was over. And it was another way for me to train for fighting. But it hasn't really helped with football at all.
First of all I'm a big Notre Dame fan and would love to see you in the Blue and Gold, but while reading your diaries it seems as though you always have something negative to say. Are your chances of attending Notre Dame slowly decreasing?
Tom Zbikowski: No, I don't think so. Notre Dame is still a top program in the country. And they're doing very well right now. I still feel real comfortable around that staff. They called the other night (for the first time since the last diary) and I thought I'd feel uncomfortable or it would be weird, but it wasn't. I had a great conversation with Coach Mattison. I thought he might bring something up, but nothing was ever said about the diary. And I was kind of happy about that. I still feel the same about Notre Dame. I've always liked them. A couple negative comments doesn't mean that place still isn't special to me.
Tommy, it would mean everything to the entire Husker Nation if you signed with the Big Red. With all the current crap that's been going on in Lincoln, does that effect the way you look at Nebraska? We could really use a quarterback who knows how to run the option. Go Big Red and Thanks.
Tom Zbikowski: Thanks. And no, Nebraska's two losses don't effect the way I look at the Huskers. I know they're going to be good. That's the way that place is. They will reload next year. And you have to remember, they have a young line. I've talked a lot to Coach Solich and Turner Gill and they are great guys. And how many losses do they have? Two? Think about that -- two losses is heartbreaking to them. That's a disappointing season. Well, to put a real positive spin on things, I hate losing. So when a place is like that and everyone expects to win and is distraught when you don't, you probably are going to win. And that's a mentality that fits in well with me.
Am following your story with great interest. I was wondering ... with all of the feelings of patriotism, etc., in the air this past year, have you given any serious thought to the service academies? You know, they require their students to take boxing classes. You could still work on your boxing in the offseason and train for the 2004 Olympics.
Tom Zbikowski: I really have thought about it a lot. If you become a Navy Seal it's easier to become a fireman and that's basically what I want to do after college. Both of my grandfathers were marines. My uncle and grandfather were firemen. So it's kind of in the family, too. We're not a family of doctors or lawyers, but firemen and marines. So the service academies would fit will. In addition to that, it obviously means something extra special to be able to give back to your country.
Send in your questions and Tom will answer a few in his next diary update.
ESPN.com is following quarterback/defensive back Tom Zbikowski on his journey from high school to the college ranks. Zbikowski is writing a diary about his recruitment, and we will file regular reports on the recruiting process through Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2003.