KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones couldn't help but get a little nostalgic as he sat in the passenger seat of his Lexus SUV while his chief of staff, Chris Spognardi, drove him north on I-75 on an early December morning.
Jones had just gone through a chaotic two-week stretch that had seen the Cincinnati coach courted by Purdue and Colorado. He turned down both a day after telling his boss he was staying at UC.
But that was before Dave Hart called.
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Jones and Tennessee's athletic director would end up meeting for over six hours at a hotel in Kentucky. Hart later acknowledged that within the first 20 minutes of the meeting, he knew Jones was the right guy to revitalize the Volunteers' beleaguered football program.
So much flashed into Jones' mind that morning in his car. Not just about the previous two weeks, but about his days as a Division III offensive coordinator at Wilkes University, where he doubled as the school's tennis coach even though he'd never played a match in his life. ("Best van driver they had," he said.) Or how, as a teen, he'd talked his way into a ballboy job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- even though he was living in Michigan. Or how he'd fly in for Bucs games right after helping student-coach for Ferris State's football team on Saturdays. Or about all the sacrifices his wife Barb and their kids had made over the years. Or that this would be the sixth move for his oldest son, Alex. There was also a 7:10 a.m. meeting where he would break the news to the team he loved so much -- a team that just six days earlier had given Jones what he called his greatest moment in coaching, clinching another Big East title with a road win despite all the "clutter" around the game.
One thing, though, kept coming back to Jones: "I can't believe this is happening. I just became the head coach at the University of Tennessee!"
• • •Volunteer fans also were pretty stunned by news of the Jones hiring.
For weeks -- even before UT had fired Derek Dooley after three dismal seasons in Knoxville -- Grudenmania had gripped Vol Nation. Jon Gruden, a one-time Tennessee graduate assistant who happened to be married to a former Vols cheerleader, was the coach most of the fan base dreamed of. The feeling was that the charismatic Monday Night Football analyst had the dynamic presence that could help a proud program that had taken a beating for five long years -- from the rocky end of the Phil Fulmer era to the fiasco of a season under now USC coach Lane Kiffin to Dooley's tenure, under which the Vols suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 100 years. In 2012, UT went through a third straight losing season before Hart finally pulled the plug on Dooley.
The Gruden crush was just fantasy. "Jon, at this point in his career, is not gonna be a college football coach," Hart told CBS on Tuesday. "That was never real. There was an obligation to see if Jon wanted to sit and visit. But it took on a life of its own."
Even after sources close to Gruden downplayed any real interest in the job from the coach, Vol fans still believed there was something in the works with the former Super Bowl coach. But there wasn't. Hart had by then moved on to Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Louisville's Charlie Strong. Gundy said thanks, but no thanks. The pursuit of Strong ramped up in early December and had local reporters staking out the Knoxville airport, expecting to see the Cards coach. He really couldn't turn down UT to stay at Louisville, could he?
But after 24 gut-wrenching hours, Vols fans were crushed again. Strong was staying at Louisville. Instead, Butch Jones was getting the job.
Since most of the UT fans hadn't heard Jones' name during the search process, especially since many were so hung up on Gruden, the move didn't sound like any home-run hire. Jones' resume, though, suggests otherwise.
In six seasons as a college head coach, Jones has led his teams to four conference titles -- two in the MAC at Central Michigan and two in the Big East. In 2011, Cincinnati was the only program in the country to win both its conference championship as well as the league's team academic award. One more thing: Tennessee fans may have wanted Strong, but Jones had a 2-1 record against him.
"We got the right guy," Hart said earlier this week from his office, some 100 days after Jones was hired to take over Vols football. "He's what we needed. The most important [criterion] is the track record. That's not coincidence."
Some of the skepticism about Jones stemmed from the fact that he'd never coached in the SEC. Of course, neither had Urban Meyer before he got to Florida. Nick Saban -- who Hart worked with at Alabama -- also didn't have the SEC on his resume till he got to LSU. Kevin Sumlin was an SEC newcomer when he got hired at Texas A&M. Conversely, Derek Dooley actually had SEC coaching experience before he took the UT job.
The Dooley era is still a sore subject around Tennessee these days. In 2012, the Vols had a third-year starting quarterback, two freakish wideouts and a big, talented, seasoned offensive line, yet UT still couldn't beat a ranked opponent. Worse still, the Vols lost 41-18 to Vandy -- UT's first loss to the Commodores in Nashville in 30 years. Former Vol players won't miss Dooley either after they say he turned them away from attending practices and being connected to the program.
"No one expects red carpet but we do expect to be able to go watch spring practice," said former UT QB Erik Ainge, who hosts a radio show on Tennessee Sports Radio 1180. Ainge said one time Dooley reached out to him to be his "spin doctor" in the media. "I sat in front of his office with his secretary and we talked for 45 minutes. I knew everybody over there better than he did. His dry cleaning wasn't done properly, so he was making them re-starch his drycleaning. And I just sat there for 45 minutes.
"He made it really hard. Tennessee fans are begging for you to give 'em something to get excited about. It's as much a part of the culture here in East Tennessee as anything. You got Dollywood and UT. He made it really hard even for the die-hards to get on board."
Jones doesn't care to do any postmortems.
"That's in the past, and the past is the past," he said. "I've tried to learn different things that I thought would help me with this football team. We were hired here for a reason with what we've done." It can be tempting for coaches to change while they go through transitions. One of Jones' long-time assistants points to how his boss wouldn't give up on his core values when they first arrived at Cincinnati and many of his new players didn't buy in.
Since getting the Tennessee job, Jones has heard from many coaches, both in the NFL and in college, who reminded him: "Do not change what you are. Do not change your formula for winning. It works. It's proven. Do what you do. Be who you are."
• • •
Lyle Allen Jones is the son of a small-town police chief in Michigan. His dad, also named Lyle Jones, nicknamed him Butch after his best friend. Unlike the Vols' last two head coaches, Butch Jones doesn't have a famous football pedigree. Being a grinder, though, is in his DNA.
His parents told him when he was small that they weren't paying for his college education. He'd have to earn it. So he started out washing dishes, he says, in 110-degree kitchens during the summer at a local restaurant. He worked his way up from dishwasher to cook to head cook to manager.
Jones' determination was also apparent when he landed a gig for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987 while visiting his aunt and uncle, who owned a sporting goods store that serviced the team in Florida. He started out in the laundry room, but says within a week he was elevated to ball boy on the practice field. Then the coaching staff let him chart plays. By that time, Jones, who was also a backup quarterback at Ferris State, was hanging around the coaching staff every chance he could get, soaking up everything he could about the profession.
One day in 1988, while playing in a staff-media basketball game in Tampa, Jones blew out his knee, ending his playing career. He opted to stay with the Ferris State program, working as a student-coach and continued to fly down to Florida or wherever the Bucs were playing on Sunday to work their games. When Doug Graber, the Bucs' defensive coordinator, was hired as the head coach at Rutgers, he offered Jones the chance to join his staff as a graduate assistant. Jones first had to graduate. That meant cramming in 18 credit hours before leaving for New Jersey.
"I think it's a great story," says Calvin Magee, a former Bucs tight end in Jones' ball-boy days. "He was always so eager. I noticed he always cared about what he was doing and really had great attention to detail."
Magee and Jones kept in touch as the former ball boy's coaching career began to take off. After his stint as a graduate assistant at Rutgers, Jones went from Wilkes to Ferris State to Central Michigan before Magee -- then an offensive coordinator at West Virginia -- recommended him to Rich Rodriguez for the Mountaineers' wide receiver coach job.
"I told Rich, 'I got a guy I know you will love,' and Rich did," recalled Magee, now the co-offensive coordinator at Arizona. "Butch was always such a stickler for detail and is so organized, I'm not at all surprised [that he's ended up as the head coach of a traditional powerhouse.]"
Jones inherits a program that is putting the final touches on an eye-popping $50 million facilities upgrade that will make Tennessee the standard for other elite programs. The on-the-field product is further behind in the developmental process, and it's a stretch to think Jones will have the Vols competing for SEC titles any time soon.
Tennessee has less skill talent right now than perhaps any other program in the conference. Jones, who last season won a conference title using a dual-threat QB and then tweaked his offense when his starter was a pocket passer, has two unproven QBs in the system and has two incoming QBs who will arrive this summer. The defense, which was dead last in the SEC in 2012 in total defense and scoring defense, figures to be shaky again. Worse still, the Vols will face five teams that likely to make it into the preseason top 10: at Oregon, at Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and at Alabama. Just qualifying for a bowl game in Year One seems very optimistic. The good news: the Vols' offensive line, led by all-American candidate Tiny Richardson, a mammoth left tackle, should be excellent. Then again, the group up front is adjusting to their third line coach in three seasons and after this year only one starter is likely to return for 2014.
A visit to a spring practice in mid-March shows that one area where the Vols certainly are not lacking is in enthusiasm. Given just how much turnover many of the UT players have had to deal with during their college careers, their buy-in to another group of coaches is impressive. (The program has had six different head strength coaches is six years.) Armed with a stick microphone, Jones darts all over the field, shouting encouragement while hip-hop music blares. He first started using the mic during practices in his second season at Cincinnati after his voice turned hoarse and he realized it helped him communicate with everyone on the field. A working stoplight sits atop a balcony at the 50-yard line just in case anyone forgets how much the new coach wants things cranked up.
"ANGLE! ANGLE! PURSUIT! PURSUIT!"
One of the points Jones is emphasizing on this day, UT's fourth practice of the spring, is getting 11 men swarming to the ball on defense.
"When you swarm to the ball, you get rewarded!" Jones shouts. "For the next three plays, the quarterback is LIVE!"
That announcement prompts howls from his new team -- although the Vols QB doesn't end up taking any hits on the series. When an offensive tackle uncoils out of his stance before the snap, Jones calls out, "False start. First-and-15! Winning football. Can't happen! Winning football."
"Everything is a teaching opportunity," Jones later explained. "You only get so many teaching opportunities. You have to maximize them. That [lineman's false start at practice] is a great illustration. We stress winning first down, especially this year. Our margin for error is very small, so we can't put ourselves in negative situations like jumping offside."
Jones also calls out matchups in one-on-one drills, announcing each receiver's name against each DB along with the eventual winner. "He's promoting competition," said senior safety Byron Moore, a one-time USC defensive back who compares Jones' style to Pete Carroll. "[Jones] preaches to us that every rep counts."
Jones keeps score on every one-on-one or seven-on-seven drill. Whoever -- offense or defense -- wins the day gets to wear the orange jerseys in the next practice.
"We're definitely doing a lot more tackling and it's a lot more physical drills," Moore said.
Asked how a team that had the talent it had offensively in 2012 couldn't even make a bowl game, Ja'Wuan James paused for a few seconds. "It was lack of leadership, I hate to say," adding that he's convinced that'll be different now. Players are allowed to have fun again. Coaches and players are developing better relationships.
"There is just a lot more energy," Richardson said. "The coaches are doing a lot more things that we like. They're playing music. They're chest bumping -- when coaches come with that mentality, you can't help but bring a lot more energy."
In addition, Jones has instituted his VOLympics, a semester-long team-building competition, where he broke the team into 10 units (drafted after the team chose the 20 best leaders in the program) battling in academics, community service and football. Jones had some something similar at Cincinnati, but decided to incorporate Vol traditions into the process. On each team -- whether they're on the Checkerboards, Team Smokey or Neyland -- players are also responsible for researching their traditions' history and making a presentation to the rest of the UT team.
"I want our players to understand the standard and expectation that they're representing here not only on the field but off the field," he said. "We use a term that the logo never comes off with what you do. You're a Vol for Life. We stress that. It's about building that affinity for the University of Tennessee and what they are representing. This is truly a special place and it has a lot of pride."
That attitude is one Jones has been championing every chance he gets. His predecessor had developed a prickly reputation among alums, fans and the media. Jones has come across as the exact opposite in his short time at UT but also throughout his coaching career.
"[Jones] was on a short lease as far as what he said," Ainge said of the increasingly skeptical environment Jones walked into. "In his initial interview, they all kind of sound the same: 'Great stadium. Great fanbase. Great place to raise a family. So glad to be here.' They all sound the same. But where Coach Jones really impressed me, he made six or seven promises: 'We're going to involve the former players. We're going to teach them about the lineage of their position. They're going to do community service. They're going to meet the lettermen. They're going to practice harder than they've ever practiced since they've been here.' He didn't say, 'we're gonna win nine games or we're gonna have the best recruiting class.'
"Within 24 hours of taking the job, I called the football office and said I want to meet with Coach Jones sometime. He called me back and I was over there in 15 minutes. He hadn't slept. He didn't know where his family was going to live. He didn't know where his kids were going to school. He was still hiring his staff. I was kinda challenging that open-door policy he talked about. Sure enough, he gave me 30 minutes. In college football, that's a rarity to find someone that actually cares. It's more hired mercenaries type atmosphere."
Hart says the energy Jones brought to Knoxville has blown him away.
"We just needed some energy and certainly Butch has brought that in big volumes," Hart said. "His level of accessibility in 2013 is pretty incredible. We needed a leader who knew how to win and could galvanize and energize the stakeholders and our fanbase. We had some bad times--five or six years were pretty difficult and we needed to start focusing on where we were going, not where we had been. In this league and in these towns of the Southeastern Conference, what happens in Neyland Stadium it dictates people's Monday mornings, their dispositions and their attitudes. Butch brought a lot of positive energy and a lot of hope, which we really needed.
"His level of accessibility in 2013 is pretty incredible," said the AD. "Now our talent level isn't what it needs to be in this league, but that's recruiting. And he's setting a very positive tone there and he's mended some fences in a short period of time too."
The Vols already have six commitments, including blue-chip DB Todd Kelly. The biggest recruiting news came two weeks ago when Tennessee beat essentially every FBS program in the country to land Jalen Hurd, a five-star running back recruit who told reporters last November that he "didn't much of a relationship with Derek Dooley or his staff."
"We're not going into a young man's living room and talking about building tradition," Jones said about embracing the Vols brand and rich legacy. "At the University of Tennessee, we have tradition. A great tradition. Since 1927, we're the all-time winningest college football program in the country. Look at all the great players who have played here."
Jones beams when he talks about being a part of the Tennessee program and all of the great players who built it. A BCS title trophy sits in his office. "That's what you're in it for," he said. "But before we can even think of even winning a national title, we gotta think about winning the day. Everyone wants to focus on the end result. We gotta focus on minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour and day-by-day just being a better football team. It's about learning how to play winning football.
"I'm as impatient as anybody but this is one of those situations where you have to roll your sleeves up and it will require some patience. It gets back to sticking to the plan, believing in the process and just put your head down and work."