The program Butch Jones inherited in December was in complete shambles, but he is changing the perception of Tennessee football and has breathed life into an exhausted fan base and program. Just four months into the job, he has everyone asking, “What the hell was Derek Dooley doing for three years?”
Jones has accomplished more in four months than Dooley did in three years without even coaching a game yet.
Tennessee fans were upset upon hiring Jones. But had Dave Hart targeted Jones as ‘his man’ from the get-go and not ‘missed’ on three coaches, little would have been said about Jones’ hiring at all. He’s a proven winner, and that’s what Tennessee needs.
But any doubts about whether Butch Jones was the right hire or whether he could recruit have been seemingly silenced in four months.
Just by observing what players are saying about practices and offseason workouts, it’s night-and-day different from the lethargic Dooley era. It’s getting my heart rate up just talking about it. Jones often grabs the mic at practice and belts out instructions himself to both his players and his staff, while players and coaches continually run from station to station. That started with winter workouts.
“In our workouts in the winter, this staff always emphasized energy and always being up from start to finish,” said redshirt freshman defensive end LaTroy Lewis. “You could see that from when we first got out there that everybody was up and it was high-energy.”
Jones seems surprised how his players have embraced his coaching staff and expectations so far. It’s funny what a little bit of leadership and gained respect will do to a team and its eagerness to learn and accept constructive criticism.
“I like the way our players have embraced our coaching,” Jones said “I like the way they have embraced the expectations for practice. Teams that have great leadership, they coach each other. I saw that.”
Jones established the “VOLympics”, a project in which players divided into 10 teams via a draft. Each team will earn or lose points all spring based on different criteria ranging from community service, the classroom and on-field production. It’s called leadership and continuity; and Jones is building it.
Not only is Jones delivering high-energy practices and building leadership, but he’s getting former players more involved, too. Dozens of former standouts donned the sidelines of the very first practice – Leonard Little, Erik Ainge, Jamal Lewis, Xavier Mitchell and Johnny Majors. Those are the very same players who helped shape the face of the winning history of the program Butch Jones calls his dream job.
“(Former players) are the program,” Jones said. “I tell them, ‘That logo never comes off.’ ”
It’s called tradition, and Jones embraces it.
He called on the alumni base to show up at three different stops for post-National Signing Day celebrations in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. They showed up in bundles.
Jones got to work immediately after being hired, urging in a new era of Tennessee football just by being socially engaged on Twitter. Every recruit and player who have a pulse are on Twitter, and Jones knows that. So, he takes to social media to start building a brand perception for not only Tennessee, but also for himself as a head coach.
Jones has already managed to lock up the state’s top player for 2014 in running back Jalen Hurd, who admitted last November ‘he never had much of a relationship with Dooley’. Hurd’s relationship with Tennessee started with former running backs coach Jay Graham. Graham bolted for FSU last month, leaving Jones in charge of Hurd’s recruitment. No problem.
Jones recently sent 102 letters to elite Georgia tailback Stanton Truitt. Why? Because he knows he has to get in the game or he won’t even be in the game at all. Nick Saban once sent 105 letters to Georgia running back Alvin Kamara, who he eventually locked up this past recruiting cycle. It’s called being relentless, and Jones attacks it.
The changed perception and welcomed momentum is great for the offseason, but how long will it continue to build in 2013 season?
Jones not only walks into a program on life support, but he walks directly into one of the tougher schedules in college football. Road trips to Oregon, Florida, Alabama and Missouri are nauseating, while home games against Georgia, Auburn and Vanderbilt will be tough, too. Combined, Tennessee’s opponents had a .581 winning percentage in 2012, but Auburn and Kentucky will be better, as both combined for just five wins in ‘12.
Jones and Tennessee’s momentum will last certainly through August, but he welcomes Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky in the first week of September. Then, back-to-back road trips to Oregon and Florida could be a blood bath and all-out football war.
No matter if Tennessee starts 2-2, Jones has a big future. It often takes coaches two recruiting classes to get their players in the program to change the culture of a team. A bowl game is the goal, once the much-maligned defense starts showing a pulse.
Patience is something Tennessee fans haven’t had, but they’re going to have to learn patience with a coach who is rebuilding a historical power.
Photo Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports