I hope University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones is the second coming of Gen. Robert Neyland. I hope he wins more games than Bear Bryant. I hope someday grateful fans erect a statue of him on campus bigger than the one Nick Saban has in Tuscaloosa.
I hope he is as beloved as Johnny Majors. I hope he wins a championship like Phil Fulmer.
Unlike UT's last two coaches, Jones has a winning record. He has intensity and by all accounts has been doing all the things necessary to restore the fortunes of the Vols and make us proud as we begin another football season in the SEC.
Should Jones not be able to effect a rescue, I don't know that the blame can be laid at his feet. It was the university that decided not to go after a big-name coach that could recruit on a level playing field with Saban, Les Miles, Will Muschamp, and Mark Richt. Jones will need all his skill, some luck, and an awful lot of hard work to take three star players and beat four and five star players. In time he may restore the Vol name to the point that he can recruit top candidates.
In the meantime, we are setting our expectations realistically—have at least a winning season. Maybe a low-level bowl game. And maybe an upset of a ranked team. And don't forget the old standby—wait 'til next year.
Jones may be the football equivalent of Bruce Pearl, a named not known to UT fans until he arrived in Knoxville and put the Vol basketball program back into contention with regular NCAA tournament berths. We certainly hope so.
Jones is certainly cause for optimism that this is the case. One certainly has more confidence in his being a winner than with Derek Dooley, the guy from Louisiana Tech with a losing record.
The Vols have loyal fans (though they aren't as loyal as in past years if ticket sales are an indicator). UT has facilities that far surpass many SEC programs. It's what makes the hiring of someone like Dooley puzzling.
I have asked the question before: Can you beat $5 million coaches with a $3 million coach?
Remember the outrage when Alabama agreed to pay Saban $4 million? UT is paying its head coaches over $4 million this year. A total of $3 million to Jones and $1.2 million to Dooley. If UT had agreed to $4.1 million for a big name coach before hiring Dooley, UT would be money ahead.
The big contributors to the UT Athletics program carry the load, of course. But we all have a stake in the Vols' fortunes. Falling on hard times has meant the football program isn't contributing a hefty amount to the academic side of UT-K any more. And empty seats in Neyland Stadium have a direct economic impact on Knoxville.
We are going into another SEC football season with hope and enthusiasm. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said, "you go to war with the army you've got." We are going to the SEC war with less talent on the field than last year—we've lost big playmakers like Justin Hunter, Cordell Patterson, and Tyler Bray. But new stars may emerge. And we might actually have a defense this year. And we will certainly have a better coaching staff.
It's getting harder and harder to be optimistic each year. I don't know how Vandy and Kentucky fans got used to it—and we don't want to find out.
It will take more than new gray jerseys to recruit five-star players, but if it helps I think most Vol fans will be okay with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure Jones and his staff can do anything they want—as long as they win the ones they are supposed to win.
So once more into the breech, my friends. Another season is upon us.
We have a long march ahead of us. Let's hope for the best. And try not to think about Bobby Petrino and the Western Kentucky game.