Butch Jones believes Tennessee football’s crossroads moment came last year, of all times, after a home loss to Arkansas.
Players were crying afterward, and so Jones called a team meeting for the next night: 8 o’clock sharp. The Volunteers coach walked in at 7:40, and the room was packed. Every player was early and in his seat, eager to hear from their coach. Things like this matter to a detail-obsessed coach, and that told him something about his team’s resolve.
It helped that the Vols went 7-1 after that, and for months Jones told people he believed that loss last October wasn’t just a return to Southeastern Conference relevance. It was, as he put it recently, “the turning point for our program.”
Indeed, Jones has made Tennessee interesting again; the Vols are the No. 17 team in the Associated Press top 25, and his recruiting and determination — or stubbornness, depending on who you ask — have the program as a favorite to reach its first SEC championship game since 2007.
Then again, maybe the most interesting thing about Jones is that although he has rebuilt Tennessee with a methodical approach, one of the nation’s best-prepared programs occasionally looks disorganized on game days. Last week, the then-No. 9 Vols needed a second-half comeback and overtime to survive Appalachian State and avoid one of the biggest upsets of the past decade.
The 20-13 win simultaneously preserved Tennessee’s season and reignited a debate of whether Jones, no matter the talent he has collected and renewed expectations he has attracted, is the man to push the Vols back to the mountaintop.
Anyway, that Arkansas game last year couldn’t have been the program’s turning point, because to many fans and observers still trying to figure out what to make of Jones, that moment hasn’t happened yet. It’s coming, though, maybe as soon as Saturday when Tennessee takes on Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway, or the looming four-game onslaught starting late this month: Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in consecutive weeks.
“We’ll know a lot about Butch, man,” said Jayson Swain, a former Vols wide receiver. “He’ll either prove that he’s a great coach and he belongs in the SEC, or he’ll be exposed.”
It was almost eight years ago that Tennessee asked Phillip Fulmer, who brought both Peyton Manning and a national championship to Knoxville, to step down. The program seemed to have lost its bite, two losing seasons in Fulmer’s final four years, and so began the parade of replacements.
Lane Kiffin was first, one season wearing orange before heading to Southern California, followed by Derek Dooley and his three consecutive losing seasons. Tennessee wanted a big name to shepherd its program back to the top, but after Charlie Strong and Jon Gruden said no, Jones said yes.
Fans and alumni were unimpressed, and by then a healthy skepticism had settled in. Each new coach was seen as a future ex-coach; disappointment sometimes made for better sports-bar chatter than progress. Jones, though, was largely a mystery. Swain had to google the Vols’ fourth coach in six seasons, learning Jones had gone 23-14 at Cincinnati; Dooley hadn’t been much of a winner at Tennessee, but even he had beaten Jones.
The coach ignored the grumbles. He spoke of a full-scale program reconstruction with frequent architecture analogies — “brick by brick” was among his favorites — and focused on Tennessee’s “blueprint” and “infrastructure,” no detail too small. Football staffers were to answer the phone a certain way — “It’s a great day in Rocky Top!” Players attended classes by sitting in the shape of the “Power T,” and arriving on time meant 20 minutes early.
Jones met and held conversations with everyone in the football office, invited 200 former players to a meet-and-greet, worked the phones tirelessly to get to know the state’s high school coaches. He used an arcane NCAA loophole to “blueshirt” players and bring in more prospects than the Vols actually had room for, a trick Jones had read about after Bill Snyder rebuilt Kansas State years earlier.
“We came in to win right away,” Jones said in a recent telephone interview. “We knew we had to flip the roster and had to do some creative things. We were very, very creative.”
He promised recruits early playing time and a chance to be part of something memorable, and with 31 days to recruit in 2013, Jones assembled Rivals’ 21st-ranked class. His next two hauls landed in the nation’s top five.
Signing day in Knoxville became exciting again, like it used to be under Fulmer, and in 2015, offensive lineman Drew Richmond flipped from Mississippi to Tennessee; this past February, four players opted at the last moment to sign with the Vols.
They won five, seven and then nine games in Jones’s first three seasons, every year a little better, brick by brick. But a question seemed to loom over each of those autumns: Is it better to have a recruiter as your team’s coach or a tactician? Jones could recruit, but his conservative approach — particularly late in games — frustrated supporters. His adjustments, if they were noticeable, often backfired. His offense and pass protection seemed overpowered, even against inferior opponents. The best and worst things about him were the same: He didn’t like to veer from a plan.
Tennessee blew a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead against Florida in 2014, and in a nationally televised game last year against Oklahoma, the Vols’ 17-3 lead dissolved and eventually the team lost in double overtime. Then again last year against Florida: a 20-7 second-half lead ending in a one-point loss.
“You’ve got to trust in the process, and you can’t get caught up in being results-oriented,” Jones said, though good luck getting an irritable fan base to go along with that.
After that loss last year to Arkansas, Jones told players they were better than they had played, that if they trusted in the system and believed in themselves, maybe something good would happen.
They stunned Georgia, and after a five-point loss to Alabama, the Vols won their final six games, stomping No. 12 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Maybe Jones was a tactician, after all; perhaps the Vols really were back.
The offseason months passed, with Tennessee becoming an intriguing team in a vulnerable division and Jones’s long-term process finally approaching its finish line. The Vols started this season in the top 10 for the first time in more than a decade, a roster loaded with talent, a coach with a vision.
Then last week, Appalachian State visited Neyland Stadium and all that goodwill and hope hardened into impatience. “It’s the same thing we saw last year,” former player Swain said. Then: “Tennessee is not back,” he said, “until Tennessee gets to Atlanta” and the SEC championship game.
On Sept. 1, Jones again entered his team’s locker room. The Vols won, so there were no tears. Only happiness and relief. Jones again told his team it will learn from this, though it won’t be remembered as a crossroads moment. Enough of those wait on the horizon.