Butch Jones: The Choice to Conduct Yet Another Rebuild at Tennessee
This morning, the University of Tennessee announced that Butch Jones, the University of Cincinnati’s head man for the past three seasons, is the choice of Dave Hart.
As of the time of the announcement, Jones was not the choice of the majority of the Vol Nation.
Even with the lucrative price tag of $18 million over six years, he likely wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice, or second choice, or third choice. He likely wasn’t in the top twenty of desired candidates for the vast majority of fans.
But, regardless of the secrecy of the actual process, executed priorities, and actual timeline of the search, Butch Jones is now the head coach of the Vols.
At 2:30 pm EST this afternoon, Lyle Allen Jones, Jr., the son of a police chief, was unveiled to the Vol Nation in the Peyton Manning Locker Room.
It had already been a busy day. He met with his Cincinnati Bearcats squad at 7:30 am this morning to tell them that he had accepted an offer from Tennessee. Jones indicated in the press conference that his players “started clapping, applauding” which was a comment perhaps intended to portray the incident as a show of respect and affection for a ‘players coach’. Then, there was a flight south to Knoxville to hold a meeting with the Tennessee players. Jones said he sensed excitement within his new squad this morning. It was reported from one source on Twitter that Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, and Daniel McCullers were in attendance for the presser.
When Jones took the podium, he delivered a scripted message that made it obvious he had been made aware of the ‘hot buttons’ with regard to the recent Derek Dooley era.
He indicated that total honesty with players is paramount to building a successful program. To build upon the legacy and tradition at Tennessee, Jones indicated that his players and coaches will be a champion at everything that they do, both on and off the field. “If you win off the field, you will win on the field”, he said.
Jones turned to the subject of a coaching staff, and said that his chosen coaches will form “the best football staff in the country” filled with individuals of character, teachers, motivators, and recruiters. The inevitable ‘Tee Martin question’ was asked later during the Q&A, and Jones was non-committal except to say that he would “reach out” to the Vol legend (currently a coach at Southern Cal).
But more than any statement with the intent of repairing past misdeeds, Jones addressed Vol lettermen:
To our letterwinners, you are the foundation. We will have an open door policy with our practices. You have laid the foundation for us to have much success for many years to come. I’m a firm believer that our letterwinners are the program. They will be welcomed back at any time. I look forward to getting to know everyone.
Jones certainly hit those hot buttons head on. Scripted or not, it struck a chord, and this song absolutely had to be sung today.
In a rather awkward portion of the delivery, Jones indicated that he had received a text message from Peyton Manning about four days ago. Apparently Manning was selling him on Colorado (a job that Jones nearly accepted but turned down). But the point of the story was introducing the aspect of the importance of forging a relationship with former players.
Jones is now finally in what he described to his former Cincinnati players as his “dream job.” He indicated that he didn’t feel slighted as being a third or fourth choice, responding to a question by saying, “I think I was my wife’s third choice” but that looking at 20 years of marriage, it has worked out pretty well. And, he wasn’t put off by his predecessor’s short opportunity to right the good ship Volunteer: “Absolutely not…. I just won an opportunity to be the head football coach here. I’m excited about that opportunity.”
It wasn’t the dazzling show that Derek Dooley put on nearly three seasons ago in the very same room. But it was the unveiling of what most observers saw as a ‘real football coach’, a ‘coaches’ coach’, and a ‘players’ coach’, without the Southern accent.
Tennessee most certainly didn’t expect to be in this situation. Plan ‘A’, at least as it was perceived by the general public, didn’t bear fruit. Gruden wasn’t in the net (and in my opinion was not really that interested). Gundy was just playing the field. And Charlie Strong had everybody believing he was coming to Knoxville in a return to the SEC before he spun around on his heels and said he wasn’t going to take that next step upwards.
After Strong spurned Tennessee, the following names surfaced on Thursday morning: Bo Pellini, Hue Jackson, Butch Davis, Dan Mullen, Greg Roman, Kirby Smart, Tommy Tubberville, Mike MacIntyre, and others.
The good thing about the landscape on Thursday morning was that it appeared Dave Hart had a lot of options. It was reported that Hart had background checks on at least 20 coaches. But he surely needed them because there were no realistic candidates left that could be dubbed a ‘home run hire’, if there is such a thing.
There were some lingering voices screaming for Bobby Petrino. But is an Athletic Director at a major university going to seriously consider a candidate that has lied to his former bosses? Multiple times? About serious issues?
There were cries for Larry Fedora and Rich Rodriguez. But the likelihood of a coach leaving a quality program after only a single season is slim, unless you are remembering the sudden exit of Lane Kiffin three years ago.
And, there were the predictable voices hollering for Phillip Fulmer, which deserves absolutely no comment.
But two media outlets in Knoxville — GoVols247 and VolQuest — announced on Thursday afternoon that Butch Jones had emerged as the front runner. GoVols247 indicated that the vacancy at UT was “Jones’ job to turn down.” It was also indicated that Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart was the fallback. VolQuest reported that there was no formal offer or even a formal interview.
The general knee-jerk response was rather predictable. It was angry. And it was ugly.
Initial comments throughout the entertaining world of social media focused on Butch Jones’ Cincinnati team being the only ‘signature win’ in the ugly three seasons of Derek Dooley. Jones was dubbed “Dooley 2.0”. Other comments focused on Butch Jones being the lead candidate of programs like Purdue, Kentucky, and Colorado (the Denver Post once reported that Jones had agreed to take the Colorado position).
But it was interesting how the national media — those that had heavily criticized the Derek Dooley hire three years ago — were nearly unanimous in praise of Butch Jones as a football coach and as a very smart hire by Tennessee. The Vol Nation seemed to circle the wagons: they turned outward and spewed venom at the national writers and commentators; and they turned inward and spewed venom at Dave Hart, Jimmy Cheek, and even at Butch Jones himself.
It was the Battle of the Alamo — a lost cause, because Butch Jones was one football coach that actually wanted to be Derek Dooley’s replacement.
At today’s unveiling, Dave Hart let it be known that he indeed had “reached out to Jon Gruden in the process to set up a meeting, but word came back that Jon was very happy doing what he was doing and would not be coaching.” Hart also stated that with regard to his candidate list, Jones was “on that list all along. We did not get a face to face until… last evening (in Lexington, Kentucky). I knew he was weighing the Colorado job. I knew he had been offered a couple of other jobs (Purdue included) and really felt secure in Cincinnati. It was not 20 minutes into our conversation that lasted through the night that I could see genuine passion. It wasn’t artificial when he said ‘Dave, this is my dream job.’ I knew that was coming from his heart.”
Hart also gave a bit of an extension to a statement by the University of Cincinnati Athletic Director (who this morning indicated his appreciation for how Hart handled Tennessee’s end of the process). Hart said “What I’ve always done my entire career is reach out to my peers and say this: ‘I’m not calling for permission. That’s a misnomer. I’m calling out of professional courtesy.’ When I’m on the other end of this, what I tell callers is if you want information about the search, you need to go to the school that’s in the search. I don’t comment on someone else’s search, and I’ve always done that.”
And in terms of the role of UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Hart indicated that Cheek “listened… understood… [and] met with the candidates. He was as involved as ‘you tell me what to do and I’ll make it a priority.’ And he did that.”
And, yes, Derek Dooley’s Vol for Life program will continue. Hart said that Jones is “very excited about that and he met briefly and talked to Anton (Davis) about that a little bit when he came in. That’s a priority for our program, something Derek deserves a lot of credit for establishing and putting in place.”
Butch Jones, who will turn 45 years old next month, has climbed up the coaching ladder via the small college route to the mid-majors.
The native of Saugatuck, Michigan (on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan) played his college football in the late 1980’s for the Ferris State University Bulldogs of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NCAA Division II). He immediately went into coaching, earning a graduate assistantship at Rutgers as a defensive assistant. His first significant coaching position — as an offensive coordinator — came at Wilkes University, a Division III school in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (Middle Atlantic Conference). One of his teams progressed deep into the Div III playoffs.
Jones’ finally came to NCAA Division I football when he became a position coach for four seasons (1 for tight ends and then 3 for running backs) at Central Michigan of the MAC. The Chippewas were for the most part a dreadful team during this period (6-5, 4-7, 2-9, 3-8). Regardless, Jones was promoted to the position of Offensive Coordinator in 2002, the position that he held for three seasons that saw no improvement in the won-loss columns (4-8, 3-9, 4-7).
A significant event was the hiring of Brian Kelly as the new head coach in 2004, Jones’ last season as offensive coordinator. Kelly vastly improved the performance of Western Michigan during the following two seasons (6-5 in 2005 and 10-4 in 2006 after the 4-7 record in 2004). But Jones was not part of those coaching staffs — he had fled for West Virginia to be a position coach (tight ends) under Rich Rodriguez who had rebuilt the Mountaineers to a two-time Big East co-champion. When Jones was in Morgantown, Rodriguez’s Mountaineers went 11-1 and 11-2 with winning appearances in the Sugar Bowl and Gator Bowl (wins over Georgia and Georgia Tech).
When Brian Kelly left Central Michigan for the University of Cincinnati, the Chippewas reached out to their former offensive coordinator to fill the open position. Kelly had quickly built Central Michigan to a MAC champion in just three seasons (4-7, 6-5, 10-4). So, Jones inherited a nearly finished project that he had earlier participated in for seven long seasons. The new head coach enjoyed the fruit of Kelly’s rebuilding job by leading Central Michigan to 8-6, 8-5, and 11-2 records that included two MAC championships and three bowl appearances.
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly had taken a somewhat floundering Cincinnati program (coached by Mark Dantonio who is now having success as the head coach at Michigan State) and came within a hair of a shot at the national championship in 2009 (10-3, 11-3, and 12-0 in that 2009 season). So when Kelly bolted from the Bearcats for South Bend (at a time when Mike Hamilton could have had Kelly instead of Lane Kiffin), Butch Jones stepped in once again to fill Kelly’s departed shoes.
The year 2010 was a rough start in Cincinnati for Butch Jones. A 4-8 record was a tough pill to swallow after the insane success that Nippert Stadium had hosted the previous season under Kelly. Players had a difficult time adapting to the new coach and his style, not to mention his football philosophy. The Bearcats lost 5 of their last 6 games that inaugural season. But better times emerged quickly. Jones led Cincy to two consecutive Big East Co-Championships (10-3 and 9-3). He was honored as the Big East Coach of the Year by CBS Sports this season and was bestowed the same title in 2011 by the Big East coaches, despite the beat-down his Bearcats suffered at the hands of Derek Dooley’s Vols in Neyland Stadium that season.
So what should Tennessee fans expect of their new head coach?
Based on his experience at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, Jones’ teams will likely play hard for 60 minutes, and his players will have a high level of respect for him.
His offenses will likely be balaced, relying primarily on the running game within an up-tempo scheme not afraid of the vertical passing game. Jones, in today’s press conference, indicated that he doesn’t like the word “spread offense” because it implies finesse, although that is how people most commonly describe his offenses — “spread”, “West Coast”, etc. He emphasized that his offense at Tennessee will be a physical-style and a pro-style set (even though quarterbacks who have played for Jones in the past have tended to be multiple threat-type players who can run and pass). This season, the Cincinnati offense ranked 44th nationally in total offense, not quite up to the level of the high-powered Tennessee offense of 2012.
Defensively, his scheme will likely be a 4-3 base defense. Today, Jones characterized his defensive style as ‘swarming’. This season, the Cincinnati defense was ranked 41st in yards per game. This will be a welcomed improvement over the disaster seen in Knoxville this season.
Butch Jones’ coaching staff at Cincinnati included two assistants with SEC coaching experience: defensive coordinator John Jancek and tight ends coach Dave Johnson were assistants at Georgia. Jones made a special effort at today’s press conference to outline requirements for what he terms will be the “best football staff in the country.”
But with his coaching abilities widely recognized throughout the country, the main question with Butch Jones’ transition to the SEC will be his recruiting abilities.
Based on the level of recruiting in the Big East Conference, Jones could be seen as having been a decent recruiter (nationally, though, his recruiting ranked in the low 50’s). And, as he said today, Jones was in charge of recruiting in the state of Tennessee when an assistant at West Virginia, so he does have experience in his new home state. And, his Cincinnati squad has several players from the South, most notably from Florida.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a successful college football program. And Jones of course knows that. Today, Jones said that “you win with players.”
That was the biggest understatement of the press conference.
So, one odyssey is over. But another begins. In earnest.
The fanbase has little to hold on to with this hire other than hope, based on the fact that Butch Jones has a winning track record as a head coach, something that the last Tennessee coach did not. Jones, in six seasons as a college head coach, is 50-27, with five bowl games, four conference championships, and two conference coach of the year honors under his belt.
But this is the SEC, the most dominant, powerful, physical, and competitive college football conference in the land. It is ruled by the shadow of Nick Saban which covers all SEC coaches at the moment.
But in that darkness lies a longshot. Before Saban came to the SEC as head coach of LSU, his record at Michigan State was a modest five games above the .500 mark with an ugly 0-3 mark in bowl games. Not many people believed at that time that Saban, a northerner with head coaching experience only in the MAC and the Big 10, would be able to survive the recruiting wars in the South. But he did, and continues to do so in a dominating fashion.
And this is what lies ahead for Butch Jones and his Tennessee Vols — the most imposing challenge facing any new coach in college football today.
May he thrive in the cauldron that is Knoxville, the University of Tennessee, and the SEC.