MEET THE COACH — New University of Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones (center) visited northwest Tennessee on Saturday and was the featured speaker at the inaugural Pigskin Blowout Banquet at UT Martin. While in town, he visited with several area
By MIKE HUTCHENS
MARTIN — Before winning in the Southeastern Conference, new Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones knows he must first win over the university’s own home state.
“We want people who have an affinity for Tennessee,” Jones told The Messenger in a private one-on-one interview before speaking at the inaugural Pigskin Blowout Banquet at UT Martin Saturday night in an appearance that benefited the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northwest Tennessee (See related coverage, Page 10). “We are the state institution and it’s a pride of who we are. In the terms of getting this thing going, the state of Tennessee is critical.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the great high school coaches and tremendous football players in this state and our great fan base. We are going to start with our state first, then we’ll venture off into a home base area, so to speak. But it’s all going to start within the great state of Tennessee.”
Building goodwill within a once-rabid fan following across the state that has become increasingly disgruntled the past four years is admittedly high on the agenda for Jones, who was hired from the University of Cincinnati in December after Derek Dooley was fired following three forgettable seasons.
Though most Big Orange faithful clamored for a marquee name during the process, Jones was hired as the 24th head coach in school history — bringing with him a 50-27 record that includes at least eight wins in five of six seasons (three each at Cincinnati and Central Michigan).
Talking heads insisted that the UT position was no longer a plum job, the program having fallen rapidly from the upper echelon and radar in both the SEC and the nation.
Jones says otherwise.
“I believe it’s the best job in the country, and I know it’s the best job for Butch Jones,” the new Vol skipper said. “Since 1927, Tennessee is the winningest college football program in the country. We don’t need to build tradition. We need to add to tradition.
“Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. Losing is a disease. There are a lot of ills, but I’m really encouraged by what I see when you look at foundation in terms of fan base. It’s the most passionate bunch of supporters in the country, I believe, and we have the ability to win and do so in front of about 100,000 fans every time we play at home.”
Reversing the Volunteers’ recent fortunes will admittedly not be easy, what with the rugged nature of the SEC that boasts reigning back-to-back national champion Alabama, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, traditionally-tough Georgia and rapidly-rising Ole Miss and Vanderbilt — among others.
Tennessee’s new boss acknowledged the unrealistic “instant gratification” hopes of many — listing himself among the impatient list — but insisted the program would return to significance the “right way.”
“You’re not going to find anybody any more impatient than Butch Jones — I want to win right now, too. But we’re going to do it the right way,” he said. “You win with people. We’re in the people business. And we’re going to get the right people on board in terms of players and recruiting.
“The SEC is the best and most competitive football conference in America. But we have the support of our administration as evidenced by the brand new $50 million Anderson training center. The vision is there. It is all about leadership. We’ve got a lot of work to do but sky is the limit. We’re fully intending on building a national championship caliber program.”
Jones knows all good intentions and rah-rah speeches intended to excite alumni and fans are only as good as the players and product a coach can put on the field though.
He managed to piece together a Top 25 recruiting class for 2013 despite getting a late start with his December hiring, but already has around a dozen or so verbal commitments for next season that many experts say could be a Top 5 national class. That lot is headlined by five-star running back Jalen Hurd of Beech, the state’s top running back and a national blue-chipper, with several second-generation Vols (defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. and receiver Neiko Creamer) also announcing their intentions to come to ‘The Hill.’
The coach is pleased, but adamant that the future Vols are good people as well as good players.
“We want to attract a high caliber student-athlete and that’s what it’s going to take for us to resume our place among the elite in college football,” Jones said. “We can’t get caught up in three-star, four-star and five-star individuals. We have to get the right fit for University of Tennessee. We have a great product to sell, a great brand and it’s a national brand.
“The class we signed this year will serve to be the foundation for years to come. We were able to sign 21, and maybe even possibly add to that in the next couple of days and make it 22. I’m excited about the class. It’s not all about the rankings, it’s about getting the players who are the best fit for us.”
In an era when many programs subscribe to what’s trendy scheme-wise, Jones — who employs a run-first spread attack — is a traditionalist in his beliefs.
“The things that have withstood the test of time — running the football, playing good defense and having good special teams — absolutely never go out of style,” he stated. “The gospel to winning at Tennessee will start with playing great defense and playing great special teams. And then, we want to be able to run the ball on offense. As much as trends come and go, those things never do.
“Football still comes down to blocking and tackling. We will eventually be a disciplined football team that plays with great effort and takes care of the football. It’s how the foundation of our football program is being built at Tennessee.”
Jones concluded by saying he had no doubt that he and his staff would ultimately put together a product — both on the field and off — that will make Rocky Top proud.
“We’re establishing the foundation and building on that foundation the standard the expectations. It’s going to be the Tennessee style of excellence,” he said. “The way we’re going to play, our expectations in terms of on-the-field and off-the-field, and both our etiquette and our football etiquette is something I’m very serious about.”
“People around the country are noticing there’s a spirit and an energy right now that is surrounding our football program. Everyone — not just in Tennessee, but throughout the country — sees it and can feel it.”
It’s starting, though, at home.
Sports Editor Mike Hutchens may be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The WCP 5.7.13