In new job, Arkansas State's Butch Jones asks himself: 'What would Nick Saban do?'

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

As Butch Jones was searching the nation for assistant coaches, recruiting staffers and others he trusted to fill his first staff as Arkansas State’s football coach, he found himself repeatedly coming back to the same thought.

“What would Coach Saban do?”

Jones knows the answer to that question better than most, after three seasons on Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s staff in an off-field role, including the final year as a special assistant to the head coach.

Jones is no stranger to the head-coaching chair, his new stint with the Red Wolves being his fourth head-coaching job, but this is his first go at it after getting the Saban experience. Jones relived his tenure at UA with The Tuscaloosa News, explaining how his exposure to Saban has molded his approach to the job.

“First of all, the last year, being in the role of a special assistant, the day-to-day interactions. When you’re able to be around Coach Saban on a daily basis, the overall balance that he displays in terms of being a leader of a great football program: alumni relations, donors, the media, handling the players, handling the coaching staff, setting forth the direction, setting for the energy,” Jones said. “Coach Saban sets the tone on a daily basis with his energy, with his work ethic, with his competitive drive to make everyone in the organization better.”

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When Jones first arrived at UA following five seasons as Tennessee's coach, he was an offensive analyst. After two years, he was elevated to special assistant to the head coach for the 2020 season, a role that earned him more frequent access to Saban.

Jones said the role primarily meant taking things off Saban’s plate, and his background as a head coach made him one of a few people in the organization who could handle Saban’s daily to-do list. The role also meant, “being able to sit in the room with him and just speak,” which Jones took as opportunities to soak up as much knowledge as possible. 

“Running the program, building a mentality, a certain player, thoughts schematically, but really, you have to be on your toes because he would call me in on a number of occasions and ask me my opinion,” Jones said. “What it forces you to do is, you better be ready, you better bring something substantial to the table, it better be well thought out, it better be detailed and it better be authentic. When you get called in and asked your opinion, it really forces you to do your research, it really forces you to do your due diligence and it challenges your conviction and what you believe in.”

Alabama NCAA college football special assistant to the head coach Butch Jones deplanes as the University of Alabama football team arrives home at the Tuscaloosa National Airport after winning the 2021 College Football Playoff national championship, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

The role also gave Jones an opportunity to be more involved in other departments more than he was as a head coach or assistant coach: the operations, player development, strength and conditioning and training staffs.

All valuable opportunities Jones nearly never had.

Jones said he was on his way to an analyst position at “another high-profile school” when Saban called to gauge his interest.

“When Alabama called, you sit there — we tell our players all the time they have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I just felt I was at a stage in my career where I needed to feel uncomfortable a little bit, and what better opportunity than to go learn from possibly the greatest of all time?” Jones said. “I had such great respect for the Alabama football program and Coach Saban competing against them, I just thought it was a great opportunity.”

Following his own advice, Jones pressed pause on the other analyst opportunity, taking a formal interview with Saban and getting the job offer the next day.

As Jones left UA for Jonesboro, Arkansas, his appreciation for Saban showed in his introductory press conference, when he got emotional recalling Saban’s impact on his career and his enjoyment of his time at UA. Jones said he shortly thereafter said to his wife, “I owe Coach Saban and Ms. Terry (Saban) everything.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson