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VOL. 41 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 17, 2017

History will be kind to the Butch Jones era

Fired coach helped rescue UT program that had hit bottom

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After the fact, Butch Jones’ shortcomings are there for all to see. He could recruit talented players but he couldn’t develop them. His hiring of assistant coaches was haphazard. He choked in late-game situations. He blurted out half-baked comments at press conferences. His interpersonal relationships were strained. He talked tough but had a thin skin.

OK, we get it. For these and other reasons, Jones is now being paid $8.2 million not to coach Tennessee through the 2020 season, thanks to a proactive move by his boss, John Currie, who recognized the need for preventative maintenance in the Vols football program.

Even so, UT fans should put their anger and frustration aside for a moment and thank Jones. Yes, thank him. They owe him a debt of gratitude.

Why? Because he did what he was hired to do: make this job attractive enough that Tennessee now can hire a coach that really can take the Vols to the next level.

Thanks to Jones and his five-year body of work, the college football world now realizes that there is a very, very high ceiling for Vol Ball. You can recruit great players in your backyard and across the nation. There is plenty of money to hire an all-star coaching staff. Nine-win seasons can be the norm, not the exception.

And if you’re really good at what you do, you should be able to win the SEC East on a regular basis.

On top of that, if you sign up for the job, there’s plenty of talent on the roster, as well as a strong recruiting class that can be salvaged.

Contrast this with the situation Jones inherited upon arrival in December 2012.

The program was a dumpster fire. In three terrible years, Derek Dooley had let the talent level slip. Expectations were low. The football program was the black sheep of the athletics department.

That’s why then-UT athletics director Dave Hart had such a hard time hiring a coach. Several accomplished head coaches, as well as a number of up-and-comers, sent word that they were not interested.

Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State toyed with Hart in order to get a better deal at his school. Charlie Strong, who was then at Louisville, was offered the job and declined on the spot.

That’s when Hart tuned to Jones. And the rest is history – for better or worse.

I say it’s for the better. We should not allow recent events to obscure Jones’ accomplishments. In 2015, UT opened the season 3-4, with the fourth loss a 19-14 near-miss against eventual national champion Alabama. Those Vols then reeled off six consecutive victories, capped by a 45-6 assault of Nebraska in the Outback Bowl.

That set the stage for the great expectations of 2016. UT entered that season ranked No. 9 and won its first five games. Think about it: At the height of Jones’ tenure, the Vols won 11 straight games over two years.

Yes, UT lost its next three games and failed to close the deal in the SEC East, but any coach who is approached about this job should be reminded how bright things looked just 13 months ago.

That’s as good as it got for Jones. In retrospect, he was the right coach at the right time when he arrived in Knoxville. Back then, his brick-by-brick approach was more than a cliché.

He laid a foundation with quality recruiting. He took a roster that lacked speed and got it back up and running. He rebuilt relationships with high school coaches in the area and developed a rapport with fans.

Granted, things eventually fell apart. When a coach is fired, we can look back and try to identify exactly when things turned south. For John Majors, it was a gathering at a booster’s house after the 1991 season when he complained about his salary to the wrong people.

For Phillip Fulmer, it was the 2005 season when the Vols began with a No. 3 national ranking and exited with a 5-6 record. Even though he won 19 games over the next two years, the failures of ’05 left some key decision-makers believing that Fulmer had lost it.

For Jones, it’s a little more complicated. Don’t overlook his poor handling of the situation surrounding running back Jalen Hurd last season. As Hurd grew unhappy with his role and his stature with the team, Jones either couldn’t or wouldn’t get him back in line. It was a sign that Jones had lost control. And he never got it back.

The writing had been on the wall for several weeks. Instead of looking for friends, Jones spent too much time trying to identify enemies. He sparred with the media, at one point wondering aloud at a press conference “what do we want out of our media?” Our media? Really? That sounds like a coach who is more comfortable at Central Michigan or Cincinnati, Jones’ two previous head coaching stops, than in the SEC.

Turning to the future, it’ll be interesting to see how Currie plays this. Remember, Currie apprenticed under Mike Hamilton at UT before leaving to run his own shop at Kansas State. Currie’s decision to cut his losses during this season is similar to the move Hamilton made in 2008 when Fulmer was fired with three games remaining on the schedule.

Back then, Fulmer was allowed to coach out the season. This time, Currie ordered Jones to clean out his office immediately and installed Brady Hoke as interim head coach.

Currie is unlikely to follow Hamilton’s template for hiring the next coach. In other words, Lane Kiffin or some other bright and brash coach is not coming through that door. Look for Currie to hire someone of substance. This isn’t about style points or winning the press conference.

There are plenty of quality candidates out there. The job pays well. Support is strong, both on campus and off. Plus, you get the prestige of coaching in the SEC without the burden of playing in the Western Division.

In sum, Butch Jones was the right man for the job five years ago.

He took the program as far as he could take it.

Now it’s up to Currie to identify and hire the coach who can the Vols to the next level.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer. He spent 38 years on the staff of The Tennessean, including 22 years as sports columnist, before retiring to the South Carolina coast, where he adjusts tide clocks and dodges hurricanes.

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