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VOL. 38 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 12, 2014

Old friends conspire to get Tennessee a better bowl

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KNOXVILLE – For all the tough times University of Tennessee football has endured in recent years, a turn for the better was bound to happen.

It certainly did early this week.

UT’s invitation to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville – now called the TaxSlayer Bowl – was a stunning coup for a 6-6 team that seemed destined for anything but a January bowl on the beach.

Yet here are the Vols, playing a Jan. 2 bowl game against Iowa (7-5), a team without a daunting resume. Not only did UT get in its best possible bowl, it got a 4-4 Big Ten Conference opponent that lost four of its last six games.

UT coach Butch Jones had plenty to smile about during Monday’s bowl-game press conference, which began with athletic director Dave Hart announcing a two-year contract extension and raise for Jones.

“I am very appreciate of the opportunity,” Jones summed up in his opening comments.

UT fans can probably thank Hart for his role in the Vols landing in the Taxslayer Bowl.

Hart and Taxslayer Bowl president/CEO Rick Catlett are longtime friends and worked behind the scenes last weekend to make the Vols-Iowa matchup happen in Jacksonville. Their plan was solid enough to convince the SEC, which made the final ruling as to which teams would represent the league in each of six bowl games with SEC ties.

Just when it seemed the Vols were destined for the Liberty Bowl against West Virginia on Sunday, Hart got word of the Gator Bowl acceptance and met Jones in the office with the news.

UT will be playing its first bowl game since 2010, and its first January Bowl since 2007, a 21-17 victory over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

“I tell you what, Dave Hart deserves applause and great appreciation for making this happen,” Jones says. “I know he worked tirelessly, he worked relentlessly, as he always does each and every day for all of our sports. But he deserves a great ‘thank you’ because he was instrumental in getting this done.”

No doubt, UT’s players were pleased. Their other likely bowls were the Belk Bowl in Charlotte or the Music City Bowl in Nashville.

“We really didn’t know where we were going, but when (Jones) said we were in a January bowl, that made a huge difference,” says junior offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson, former Knoxville Catholic High School player.

“There’s literally a difference between December 30 and January 1. That next step, the bowl site, is even better. We’re super excited that we get a chance to play in Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.”

UT started the first two of its 15 bowl practices Saturday and Sunday, and Jones gave the week off to study for exams.

Coaches, meanwhile, focused on recruiting and solidifying future classes, which becomes much better when a team is bowl eligible.

“It obviously makes it a lot easier (recruiting),” Jones says, “and then when you couple the fact that it’s a January 2nd bowl game, that just adds to it. … It does help in the recruiting aspect of things. Now when you turn every TV show on, every sports show, they’re going to be talking about the University of Tennessee.

“They’re going to see that national brand, that ‘Power T,’ every day when they talk about the bowl games, and then obviously, the great bowl game, the TaxSlayer Bowl, adds to that as well.”

UT was an early 3-point favorite against Iowa, which hopes to redeem its poor regular-season finish with a bowl victory.

The Hawkeyes finished 8-5 last season after a 21-14 loss to LSU in the Outback Bowl, and entered 2014 a title contender in the Big Ten’s West Division.

Despite losses to Iowa State and Minnesota (by 37 points), the Hawkeyes still had a chance to win the division with home games against Wisconsin and Iowa, but lost both games to end the season.

“We’re all extremely disappointed we didn’t win either of those games, or both of them,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told media during Sunday’s bowl press conference.

“But you can’t move backwards. So if there’s any feeling or talk of us not being affected, that’s ridiculous. Anybody who has ever competed, I think would understand we’re disappointed. We want to do better. That’s going to be our goal. Now, we have three-plus weeks to get better as a football team.”

Jones is taking the same approach to the bowl practices – with a far different mood surrounding his team.

“We talk about the longevity, life expectancy of this football team, and it gives us a few more weeks to be together, to grow our family, our brotherhood,” Jones says.

“We’re excited about that, and then another opportunity to compete and represent the state of Tennessee and the entire University of Tennessee and Vol Nation.

“To be able to compete on the center stage January 2 is a great, great platform to show the entire country what we’re building and what’s going on here at Tennessee.”

Notable notes

Jones Raise: Jones was awarded a raise from $2.96 million to $3.6 million per year, putting him in the upper half of the SEC among coaching salaries and the top 20 nationally. His original contract ran through the 2018 season.

Jones is 11-13 in two seasons at UT, and his raise was the subject of much debate on talk radio during the week.

Hart’s move on Jones’ contract was believed by some to be in response to Michigan’s potential interest in Jones for its head coaching job. Jones is from Saugatuck, Mich.

Jones said he had not been contacted about the Michigan job, and Hart said Michigan has not contacted him about Jones, either.

Hart gave his reasons for the extension and raise:

“When you are rebuilding a program, you face a lot of challenges in an effort to change the culture,” Hart says. “It takes a tireless effort by everyone in the organization to make that come to fruition. Clearly the most critical piece is leadership, and we have the right man leading our football program at the University of Tennessee.

“Butch Jones has clearly reenergized our fan base. He is an outstanding ambassador for our university (who) transcends his role as head football coach. He and his staff have recruited at a very high level, and in an effort to restock our talent base you see that unfolding.”

Jones’ new contract includes salary boosts of more than 8 percent for his assistants for UT gaining the bowl bid.

Jones said getting raises for his assistants was “critical.”

“It’s really not about me,” Jones says. “It will never be about me. It’s about our football program at the University of Tennessee and rewarding achievement, which Dave Hart just spoke about. It’s all about the coaches and it’s all about everyone in this football program.

“No one person is ever bigger than the University of Tennessee football program and that’s the way I’ve always run our organization, our football family. It’s all about people. You win with people, and we have great people in place.”

Crashing Website: Jones said UT fans bombarded the TaxSlayer Bowl website with request for ticket information when the bowl pairing was announced.

“I know our fan base is energized,” Jones said. “I got word (Sunday) that our fan base actually crashed the bowl website, so I don’t know if they have it up and running yet, but that’s a tribute to (the fans).

“It’s a great accomplishment to play in a January bowl game, and our fan base can take great pride in knowing that they also had a hand. They also were a deciding factor of that January 2 bowl game because of the loyal support, the energy that they’ve provided into this football program and the support for two years.”

Jones was probably correct in his point: UT fans travel well, which was an attraction to TaxSlayer Bowl officials and the SEC.

Healing Time: Jones said several injured Vols will benefit from the break and be ready for the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Among them: Running back Jalen Hurd (possible head injury), running back Devrin Young (ribs) center Mack Crowder (ankle), tight end Daniel Helm (ankle) and receiver Jason Croom (leg).

Jones applauded freshman receiver Josh Malone for playing through nagging injuries this season. Malone has 22 catches for 227 yards and one touchdown.

“One person who really goes unnoticed is Josh Malone,” Jones says. “Josh Malone has been going through some nagging injuries in a number of areas. Josh doesn’t say anything. He just tries to compete. I know it’s bothered him because he hasn’t been able to get out there and give everything that he has, but he’s attempted to give all that he has.”

Hurd, the true freshman from Hendersonville’s Beech High School, leads the Vols in rushing with 777 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and has scored three rushing touchdowns. He’s been in a green non-contact jersey for the last four weeks.

“A lot of that has nothing to do with health; it has to do with the health of the position,” Jones says. “Right now we don’t have much depth at the running back position, so you have to pick your spots when you practice with a high level of physicality. A lot of that is just protecting (Hurd) because of our depth at that position.”

It’s been a tough senior season for Young, former star at Knoxville Bearden High School. Young has been limited by injury to six games (no starts) and has six carries for 24 yards and four catches for 31 yards.

“He’s not 100 percent, but he’s worked exceptionally hard,” Jones says of Young. “It’s a tribute to him that he’s been able to have a number of weeks off and step up and come in and not miss a beat. He adds another element, another dimension to our offense, so we need to continue to progress with him. I’m just very proud of him. It would have been very easy to just walk away and say, ‘I’m done.’ He’s shown great resiliency. He’s persevered just like a lot of our players have and I’m very proud of him.”

Fountain or Drain?: Jones is known for his analogies, and he came up with a new one early in the week.

A reporter asked Jones how the Vols’ energetic practices affected recruits who were in attendance.

“I think that energy rubs off on everyone,” Jones said. “It’s contagious. We talk about, ‘You’re either a fountain or a drain. What are you?’ And we want fountains.

“It gets back to the energy bus. Everyone having the word on the front of their bus. No energy vampires. Energy vampires zap everyone of their energy, and we talk about that all the time.

“And what happens is, you start to build a culture. And if you do have an energy vampire, they become uncomfortable because there’s not a lot of them around. They’re either forced to conform or they eliminate themselves.”

Interesting.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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