Jones surrounded by familiar faces on first coaching staff with Vols
Posted: Friday, December 21, 2012 7:00 pm
By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The members of Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ staff believe their familiarity with one another should help them produce the same type of results they delivered at their previous stops.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, tight ends coach Mark Elder, defensive coordinator John Jancek, strength coach Dave Lawson, offensive line coach Don Mahoney and defensive line coach Steve Stripling all worked with Jones at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Safeties coach Willie Martinez and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni also worked with Jones at Central Michigan.
The only Tennessee assistants who have no previous experience with Jones are linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and running backs Jay Graham, the lone holdover from former Volunteers coach Derek Dooley’s staff. Thigpen was with Martinez at Auburn this season and previously worked with Azzanni at Bowling Green.
“Continuity is huge in a coaching staff,” Jancek said. “You don’t want to bring new guys in every year. You want to have continuity, and you want to be familiar with each other and know the day-to-day operations. There is a level of comfort. I think that comfort level around the coaches (carries over) to the players.”
All the new assistants aside from Azzanni and Stripling spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since joining Tennessee’s staff. Azzanni coached Wisconsin’s receivers this year and is helping the Badgers prepare for the Rose Bowl. Stripling is Cincinnati’s interim head coach for the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl with Duke in Charlotte, N.C.
Although Thigpen was announced last week as Tennessee’s new cornerbacks coach, he will work with the linebackers instead.
During his introductory press conference Dec. 7, Jones said he would “assemble the best staff in America,” but this group doesn’t feature many big names. The most recognizable assistant Jones pursued was Southern California receivers coach Tee Martin, the quarterback of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. Martin decided to remain at USC.
What this staff lacks in star power, it makes up for in cohesiveness. Jones’ assistants believe their working relationship should boost their efforts to rebuild a Tennessee program that has posted three consecutive losing seasons.
“A number of us have been together for six years now,” Elder said. “We’ve all known each other for a long period of time. As far as that’s concerned, we’ve been able to hit the ground running.”
The new staff will utilize an uptempo offense, though Bajakian says he will mold his system to the talent on his roster. Jancek will return the defense to a 4-3 scheme after the Vols unsuccessfully experimented with a 3-4 this season.
Those strategies helped Jones win at his previous two schools. Jones was 27-13 at Central Michigan from 2007-09 and 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years. His teams have won at least a share of four conference titles in six years.
Bajakian appreciates the sense of autonomy Jones gives his assistants.
“He’s given us the opportunity to coach our position, to coach our sides of the ball,” Bajakian said. “He focuses his attention on being what he calls the attitude coach. He coaches the attitude and mentality of our players. He’s the motivator and does a great job of it and allows us to focus on the X’s and O’s and the techniques and the fundamentals. Trust me, he has a great grasp of that and a lot of input on that, but he loves the motivational part of the game. That just makes my job easier.”
This staff now faces its toughest challenge as it tries to compete in the SEC.
Although Jones has never coached in the SEC before, he has hired assistants who have experienced the ups and downs of working in the nation’s toughest conference.
Martinez and Jancek worked together at Georgia when the Bulldogs finished second in the nation in 2007, but they were dismissed at the end of the 2009 season.
Thigpen coached on Auburn’s 2010 national championship team, but he and Martinez were let go by new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn this month.
The other assistants with SEC experience are Graham and Azzanni, who coached Florida’s wide receivers in 2010.
“There is no such thing as a down game,” Thigpen said of the SEC experience. “Every week you’ve got to put your ‘A’ game on and go out to practice with your construction hat on and be ready to go. There are no letdowns in this conference because every single week anybody can get you. That’s what Butch understands. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s kept the intensity high. He understands every week you’ve got to play like it’s the national championship.”
Jones also apparently understands the importance of continuity. Since his assistants already know one another, they can get down to the business of turning around this program.
“I see guys that have been together at some point in time,” Graham said. “You know, it’s good to see. It’s good to see that kind of chemistry because that’s going to help us. Having trust with each other is going to help us once we get to the players and start coaching football.”
Published in The Messenger 12.21.12