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Because they are demanding, Tennessee's coaches have had six wide receivers drafted in the first round since 1982. "We sell the kids on one thing," says former receivers coach Kippy Brown, who left Tennessee in early 1990 to become the running backs coach of the New York Jets. "You don't get better during the games. You get better during practice, through drill work."
Brown quickly discovered how contrary Pickens could be. In 1988 the Volunteers were off to a wretched 0-5 start and faced powerful Alabama as their next opponent. Desperate to salvage the season, Majors and his staff decided to remove three true freshmen from redshirt status. Two jumped at the chance. The third, Pickens, wanted to know if the coaches were serious.
"They told me, 'We're bringing you out of your redshirt,' " he recalls, "and I'm thinking, What kind of bull is that? What am I going to do—turn the season around?"
At the team meeting the day before the Alabama game, Brown looked around. There was no Pickens. At practice, still no Pickens. Brown called the Pickens residence in Murphy, N.C., and asked Carl's mother, & Mary, if she had seen her son. "He just drove down the street with some of his buddies," she I cheerfully reported.
Pickens was guaranteeing himself a full four years of eligibility the best way he knew how. The coaches came down on him for his defiance—sort of. "We ran him after practice for three days," says Brown. Three days! How draconian! If a third-string lineman doesn't show up for a game, do you think he gets off with a few extra postpractice gassers? Not a chance; he gets weekday afternoons off for the rest of his college career. Pickens knew that he wasn't expendable; he acted on that knowledge and so remained a redshirt.
The following season, after LSU riddled the Volunteers for 423 passing yards, the then defensive coordinator Doug Mathews pleaded with Majors for permission to conscript Pickens for the secondary. Majors's Solomon-like compromise—let Pickens play both ways—made everyone happy. Everyone but Pickens. Though he was a smash hit at free safety, actually performing better than he had as a wide receiver—in five games he had five interceptions and was defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl—Pickens was disgruntled all season. Contrary to the coaches' promises that he would get 20 to 25 snaps per game at wideout, he got no more than five a game.
Said Brown, "I hope Carl trusts us enough to know we're going to do what's best."
Trust? Pickens had observed coaches long enough to know that he could trust them to do one thing: Cover their own posteriors.
Pickens has never been one to enter into easy trusts; has never been one for blind obedience. That's part heredity—"He's always been stubborn," says Mary Pickens—and part environment. Murphy is a sleepy town of 2,000 nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its rural charms belie a certain unsavoriness. Virtually all of Murphy's black families, the Pickenses included, live outside town, across the railroad tracks in a community called Texana, as they have for generations. If some people have their way, blacks will continue to do so for generations to come. In the summer of 1990, the Ku Klux Klan marched in Murphy.
Pickens used to dismiss recruiters from distant schools when he was a scholastic All-America, telling them he wanted to stay close to home. "Now," says Pickens, "I hardly ever go home. When I do, I don't stay long."