Butch Jones out to spark a renaissance at Tennessee
In late December, dozens of former Tennessee football players made their way to the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex on the UT campus in Knoxville. It was a concentration of some of the greatest Volunteers ever to wear orange, from Condredge Holloway, the first African-American quarterback to start in the SEC in the 1970s, to Carl Pickens, a former All-America receiver for the Vols in the 1990s. The event offered a chance to reminisce about the glory days, but it was more than that. It was an opportunity for Tennessee's newest football coach to show his appreciation for those who built the program he inherited only days earlier.
Butch Jones understands the importance of tapping into the resource of former players -- many of whom reportedly hadn't felt welcome around the Tennessee program in years. That's why he organized the meet-and-greet in Knoxville. "They had about three days notice, and we still had about 70 letter winners show up," said Jones. "We had another one in Nashville during the national championship game, and again we had over 70 individuals show up. In my short time here, those are the two nights that I really enjoyed, getting to meet all our former Vols.
"That's one of the great things about Tennessee: We're not building a tradition. We have a tradition. And that's all about the former players."
Jones might recognize the importance of the past, but his job, first and foremost, is to shape the program's future. Given the recent dominance of the SEC, that task will be particularly daunting for a coach who hopes to end one of the biggest slumps in Tennessee history. The former Cincinnati headman accepted the Vols job after Derek Dooley was fired on the heels of a 5-7 season in 2012, making Jones the school's fourth head coach since 2008. Tennessee hasn't won more than seven games since Phillip Fulmer took it to the 2007 SEC title game, and the stability of a program with six national championships has suffered drastically.
But the troubles facing Tennessee extend beyond mere wins and losses. Decisions made by past administrations have left the Vols athletic department more than $200 million in debt. That number isn't overwhelming compared to other SEC schools, but Tennessee's $1.95 million reserves -- thanks to a large number of buyout packages to past coaches and staffers -- is the least in the conference. The athletic department momentarily halted its donations to the academic side of the university, and the governor of Tennessee declared the financially plagued Vols need to fill up Neyland Stadium, which has experienced recent dips in attendance.
Jones said Tennessee's struggles are no different than those at any other major program. "It's like a storm," he said, "and the storm has passed. You look at the biggest programs in the country; they've all gone through trials and tribulations, 'their time.' We firmly believe Tennessee has gone through its time and you can see the sun breaking through the clouds."
Despite the current climate in Knoxville, Jones sees Tennessee as a destination job. At a Nashville recruiting event, he joked that fans "may get tired of me in about 30 years." And in fact, he's already setting the tone in the locker room. He installed a program called "VOLympics" to stress accountability across the roster, where players will earn points for on-field performance as well as for off-field activities including academics and community service.
"When every coach gets hired, their press conferences sound nearly the same," said Erik Ainge, a former Volunteers quarterback and host of The Erik Ainge Show on Tennessee Sports Radio in Knoxville. "'Fans are great, tradition is amazing, etc.' You hear that and you say, whatever. But Butch Jones understands the little things. He reminds me a lot of [Duke coach and former Tennessee assistant] David Cutcliffe, as far as knowledge, approaching the game, the psychological and mental aspect, the approach to relationships. That's what he's developing already."
Considering the program's recent mediocrity, the new coach's inaugural recruiting class -- which finished 20th in Rivals.com's rankings and maintained a 3.19 average star rating -- was certainly admirable. Because of NCAA mandated dead periods, Jones and his staff had 31 days to both hold the Vols' class together and lure in new prospects. Tennessee inked 21 signees headlined by four-star wide receiver Marquez North out of Charlotte, arguably the crown jewel of the class. North could play a big role on a roster that had just five scholarship wide receivers upon Jones' arrival.
The Vols also flipped four-star quarterback Joshua Dobbs from Arizona State on National Signing Day. Along with fellow quarterback signee Riley Ferguson, Dobbs will add depth to the group of passers. Dobbs also boasts a 4.0 high school grade point average and plans to major in aeronautical engineering.
One of the other areas Jones wants to improve is Tennessee's in-state recruiting, as the Vols have let more than a few prospects slip through the cracks in seasons past. That importance is magnified given rise of SEC neighbor Vanderbilt, which finished ahead of the Vols (No. 19) in Rivals.com's team rankings after a nine-win 2012 campaign. "We have to go back to that same affinity we had when kids grew up and dreamed of the checkerboard end zones and wearing the Power T," Jones said. "Let's not forget that since 1927, Tennessee is still the all-time winningest college football program in the country. What's been lacking is consistency and continuity, and we have that now."
Jones believes his staff's "selective" recruiting process will help spark a long-awaited turnaround. The Vols specifically targeted players who fit a number of standards, including state playoff experience, high character and lofty academic standing. When he visited recruits' living rooms, he pitched the idea of being part a Vols' renaissance. "It's easy to go somewhere where they're winning right now," he said. "You just become one of the guys. But these guys have a chance to create a legacy of getting Tennessee back."
Few can argue with Jones' résumé. During his last two coaching stints -- three-year stops at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati -- Jones won four league championships. That success comes in stark contrast with Dooley's record upon his hiring at UT (17-20 in three seasons at Louisiana Tech). Jones has won everywhere he's coached, and the bulk of his Tennessee staff has been with him for the entire ride. Some who weren't, such as linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, come with SEC experience.
"I think the continuity that we have amongst the staff, the relationships that we have amongst our staff only help in building those relationships with the recruits and moving forward in that direction," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who served on Jones' staff at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
But the SEC is a different beast, and climbing up the ranks won't be easy. Jones replaced current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at both his two previous coaching destinations, and critics wonder if he can win without a roster full of Kelly's players. The Vols' top-20 recruiting class still ranked only 10th among SEC teams, and several key faces on Tennessee's offense -- namely quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson -- left for the NFL. Meanwhile, the Vols face a difficult schedule in 2013, one that includes road trips to Oregon, Alabama and Florida.
It didn't take long for Jones to show respect for Tennessee's past. But with spring practice on the horizon, now it's time for him to focus on building the program's future.
"There isn't anybody as impatient as me," said Jones. "I want to win now. We expect to win now. But we have to deserve to win in everything we do. And we have all the resources at Tennessee to be successful."