There’s an in-state rivalry heating up in Tennessee that’s as fine as the state’s black label whiskey. It’s a tale of two programs rewriting their record books.
Vanderbilt isn’t shy about the rivalry and poking the sleeping bear. Hell, Tennessee refuses to even call it a rivalry, but the Dores have passed the Vols up – at least for the moment, in this never-ending cycle that is SEC football.
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Nonetheless, both programs brought the two most impressive coaches, player combinations, rivalry or not.
Butch Jones’ dad is a police officer, and I can see Jones becoming the 5-0 in his second life. But for now, he’s a door-to-door salesman, literally, for one of the historical powers that have gone lifeless, and we can’t merely judge him on his first year. But what we can do is judge his job so far, and in just eight months on the job, he’s done more than Derek Dooley did in three years. The toughest aspect of breathing life back into an exhausted fan base and program, of course, is Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
But the Butch Jones I saw at media days is the man for the job. He’s pointed and to the point: Tennessee football is coming back.
He labored up and down radio row; he hit ESPN; he went through four main media rooms, which featured thousands of eyes and ears, reaching out to every medium he could to tell the world where his program is headed.
“We have to focus on the process. We can’t worry bout the end result right now. We have to be a better football team and a better football program minute by minute, hour by hour, day to day, month by month.”
Are you surprised he didn’t mention brick by brick?
Three of those bricks come in the form of Tiny Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Jacques Smith. All three bricks beamed ear to ear about starting anew in the Tennessee program post Dooley. Smith, the most impressive of the three, continuously said he’s so excited for this year to start. The most impressive part of Smith’s presser wasn’t his ladies-man smile or his orange jacket, but rather, when he shook every single hand in the small, attention-detailed radio room. He wanted to thank us for listening, and ultimately, he wanted to thank Butch Jones for giving him and his teammates the opportunity to get excited about Tennessee football again.
On a semi-parallel plane, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin was equally impressive, if not the most impressive coach of the 14. Vanderbilt’s CEO is selling a program that’s in a completely different generation than Tennessee. Vanderbilt has never achieved such success, and Franklin has built it from the ground up, rightfully hailed as the Dores’ fearless and confident leader.
Franklin embraces the perceived difficulties of the job, turning a tough, incomparable, non-winning situation into a winning one which features a (near) Ivy League education. Instead of dreading going into recruits’ homes and telling prospective athletes about the strict standards, Franklin puts on his sales cap and sells it.
I entered naive about Franklin, but as I left Birmingham, I asked myself how recruits and parents could look another direction, regardless of school or program. He’s that impressive. I normally don’t like CEO head coaches, but Franklin is different. And it’s easy to see why players and prospects eat it up.
Part of his program’s success is built upon the three pillars of Wesley Johnson, Jordan Matthews and Andre Hal, three seniors who have been the foundation of fresh ink in the record book.
Matthews, the most confident and impressive of the three, spoke as confidently as he wore his bow tie. When I asked Matthews whether he and his teammates embraced the program and the chip that comes with being underrated and looked over, he confidently replied, “It’s the biggest chip in the country, and we embrace it everyday.”
Thankful he returned for another season, Matthews proceeded to poke holes in why Franklin would ever leave the program for another.
“This [Vandy] is the best job in the country. Why would he want to go anywhere else?”
Johnson and Hal spoke confidently and pointedly, with all focus streamlined on the next game: Ole Miss.
SEC Media Days saw the two programs writing two different stories that had the two most impressive player and coach combinations for 2013.
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