Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. The lights are on. The band has played a rousing rendition of “Rocky Top.” Players in orange jerseys are lined up on the sidelines, awaiting their chance to shine. New head coach Butch Jones runs out on to the field. The crowd roars.
Yet it’s not football time in Tennessee, not yet, no matter what the voice on the loudspeaker says. This is practice. Not the Orange and White game, not even a scrimmage—it’s practice. A Saturday night in August University of Tennessee football training camp practice.
But because it’s open to the public, and it’s the first time in the modern history of the program it’s happened, and because Jones is new, and because Vols fans are hoping he’ll erase the bad taste of the past several years—the decline and fall of Phil Fulmer, the Lane Kiffin debacle, the dyed-to-order orange pants of Derek Dooley that didn’t have magical powers after all—there are 30,000 fans, give or take a few thousand, in the stands watching UT’s four possible quarterbacks run plays. When the plays result in a “touchdown,” the crowd cheers as if it actually counted. Even when the skies open and driving rain pours down and doesn’t stop, people stay and watch. Both the desperation and excitement are palpable.
And UT fans are desperate. It’s been quite a while since the Vols have been so bad for so long. Sure, Auburn had a worse season last year, and yeah, Arkansas was right up there, and Kentucky‚ well, they’re Kentucky. But Auburn won a national championship in 2010, and Arkansas didn’t even have their real coach. And sure, the team’s still on NCAA probation until 2015, thanks to Kiffin’s assistant coaches, but that’s not the reason the Vols haven’t won an SEC Championship since the storied 1998 season.
But now there is Jones, and he is the reason—and pretty much the only reason—fans are excited for this season. UT has a tough schedule—they play four of the top six teams in the AP’s preseason poll, and five of the top 10 teams. (Whether Florida should be rated in the top 10, well, that’s a question we’ll know the answer to soon enough.) UT also has a team full of freshmen and a shaky starting quarterback in junior Justin Worley. They could go 7-5, they could go 6-6, they could even fail to make a bowl game again.
Yet under Jones, UT also has the top 2014 recruiting class in the country. Even if some of those commits pull out, Jones has already positioned the Vols for future seasons, when they’ll have more starting upperclassmen and won’t have to travel to Oregon to face the fastest team in the country, SEC speed notwithstanding. If you’ve already forgotten that last December Jones’ hiring was met with more groans than celebration, we can’t blame you.
It’s possible that fans have glommed on to Jones so quickly because he’s so very different from his most recent predecessors. He has a military flat-top, not the perfectly coiffed hair of Dooley, and he’s not flashy like Kiffin—Jones’ coaching staff hires were solid, but not high profile. (He also didn’t hire his dad.) The fact that under Jones the Vols have had the quietest offseason in years—no armed robbery, no high-profile bar fights, no tossing bottles on cars or hot-dogging on jet skis—hasn’t hurt either.
“I try to raise every individual in our football program like they’re my own son,” says Jones, who has three young boys of his own with his wife Barbara. “We spend an inordinate amount of time on our personal growth and development. That is the forefront of our program. … That Power T is a national logo. When you play football in Tennessee, that logo never comes off. One wrong, all wrong.”
Jones’ speech is peppered with slogans and aphorisms like this. Of course, a lot of coaches speak in sentences straight off motivational posters, but I’ve never heard one who can rattle off so many in a row. Yet Jones comes across as oddly sincere, and his adages seem to be a good fit in the locker room already decorated with seven famous maxims.
“Coach Jones brings a lot of energy,” says junior offensive lineman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The way he is out there is the way he is in front of us every day.”
Jones is a former football player himself—he was a quarterback and then a wide receiver at Ferris State in the 1980s. He started his career as an intern with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then moved to Rutgers, Wilkes University, and back to his alma mater before accepting a job as tight ends coach at Central Michigan University in 1998. Jones worked his way up the ranks at CMU, leaving for two years to coach wide receivers at West Virginia. When he returned to CMU in 2007, it was as head coach. After three winning seasons, he moved to Cincinnati, where the Bearcats went from 4-8 in 2010 to conference champions and Top 25 finishes in 2011 and 2012.
The SEC is a tougher—much, much tougher—conference than CMU’s MAC or Cincinnati’s Big East. Even Dooley’s mediocre 2011 Vols beat Jones’ Bearcats by 22 points. But Jones thinks he’s got a shot at succeeding where the last two hires have failed.
“It’s our responsibility and challenge to get Tennessee football back to its rightful place among the elite of college football. Is it going to be easy? No. It is going to be a journey? Yes. But there’s a plan in place, and why not—why not Tennessee? It’s all right here. You look at the tradition, and we have everything here that we need to be successful,” Jones says, his husky voice reaching peak emotion.
“It’s just going to take some time. And I know we live in an instant gratification society, and there isn’t anybody more impatient than myself and the staff, but we also make sure we do it right. It gets back to that ‘brick by brick’ philosophy. We’re going to build a foundation that’s extremely strong. There are no quick fixes. Quick fixes in our industry last very short periods of time.”
Which is to say, don’t overinflate your hopes for this season, Vol fans. At least not yet.
“We’ve talked from day one—everything is process oriented. We’re focusing on the process and not the end result. We just have to keep getting better,” Jones says. “This team will be defined on how we manage and handle our adversities. The resiliency it’s going to take, the leadership, the character—we talk about that all the time.”
Jones won’t comment on whether he thinks his freshman-heavy team will improve enough to ensure a winning season and a trip to some bowl game, somewhere.
“Losing is a disease and we’re working on becoming healthy,” Jones says. “I haven’t even looked at it as a win-loss total. The thing we have to concern ourselves with is improving each and every day.”
He repeats that last line several times throughout our conversation—it’s part of his well-publicized “brick by brick” campaign (which, even if it does work, you should expect to be officially sick of hearing about by the end of the season). But it’s a strategy that makes sense for an unseasoned team. Let’s get the basics down. Let’s focus on being good—then we can focus on winning. And as long as the Vols don’t finish at the bottom of the SEC East this year—as long as they beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky—fans will be patient with Jones. At least until next season.
“This is Tennessee. You have the best fans in the country here,” says Richardson. “I think the fans were ready for a new beginning. I think we were ready for a new beginning.”
The new beginning starts Saturday against Austin Peay, followed by another likely cupcake in Western Kentucky (even if they are now coached by Bobby Petrino). But then there’s Oregon and Florida, both away games that the Vols are likely to lose. They’re back home against South Alabama, another easy win, but that’s followed by the tandem of Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. If the team loses all three in a row, which seems quite probable, how will they handle the winnable November games—Missouri, Auburn, Vandy, Kentucky?
Jones says his team is prepared for the challenge.
“I don’t like emotional teams. Emotional teams are up and down. I like passionate teams, I like passionate people. I like consistency and performance,” Jones says.
Even if the team isn’t up and down, the season surely will be. But Jones says the 2013 Volunteer football team is just the beginning of things to come. He mentions wanting to see his sons all graduate from high school in Knoxville, and while his oldest, Alex, is 16, Jones’ youngest, Andrew, is just 6. Could Jones really last 12 years as head coach? We won’t know the answer after this season. But you definitely get the feeling that if Jones ever leaves Tennessee, he won’t go quietly.
“If there’s one word that could define who we are, it’s relentless,” Jones says, a tough grin on his face. “We want to take a relentless approach to everything we do. Whether it’s on the field, whether it’s off the field, whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s in the community, or whether it’s in recruiting.”
How relentless will the team look Saturday afternoon? How relentless will they look in November? We don’t know. But we can’t wait to find out.