Butch Jones on season, family: Too much good to focus on negatives
KNOXVILLE — As her husband buckled to the ground for a moment, overcome by emotion at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, Barb Jones had one thought amid joyous Tennessee Vols fans in the stands.
“Andrew will actually be in a good mood about going to school Monday.”
Fourth-grader Andrew Jones always hated going in after Vols losses, the downside of being the coach's son. He once received complaints on social media about his father, fourth-year UT coach Butch Jones. Grown men, sniping at a 9-year-old on Snapchat.
On that Oct. 1 evening in Athens, Ga., Andrew was hugging his mother after a last-second pass to the end zone delivered a shocking 34-31 win for the Vols.
Later it would be a family group-hug involving Butch and Barb, college sweethearts at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.; Andrew, Adam, 15, a high school sophomore football player; and Alex, a 20-year-old UT sophomore football player.
When the family got home late that night, balloons and congratulatory signs adorned the front gate of their 9,600-square-foot house in a tucked-away, ritzy neighborhood in Knoxville. The Vols were 5-0 and ranked in the top 10 nationally. A championship fourth season under Jones seemed certain.
Flash forward to Dec. 22, inside that same home. Same close-knit family, preparing for Christmas, playing pool and video games. Different outside tone, some calling for Jones’ job as the 8-4 Vols prepare to play Nebraska in a very important Music City Bowl on Friday at Nissan Stadium.
In an exclusive interview with The Tennessean at his home, surrounded by his loved ones, Jones said he is determined to keep and complete this job.
“I’ll be honest with you, the ride home from Vanderbilt was probably the three longest hours of my life,” Jones said of the aftermath of a 45-34 loss to the Commodores on Nov. 26 that cost the Vols a spot in the Sugar Bowl and infuriated their fans. “But like Barb said after that, there’s too much good going on to focus on the negatives. I know what’s here, I know what we’ve done and I know what’s ahead of us. We’re talking about sustained success here. Nobody is more driven than me to win a championship…
“You know, you ask about me being on the ‘hot seat.’ I’ve always taken the approach that every year I’m on the hot seat.”
That pressure is the tradeoff for a $4.1 million annual salary to coach football at a place with championship resources and tradition. But what a year it has been for Jones and his family.
Ups and downs, on off the field
The offseason included UT paying $2.48 million in July to settle a lawsuit that alleged the university violated federal law in the handling of sexual assault cases, several involving football players. Attention soon shifted to the most hyped Vols team in years, and the excitement of wins over Florida and Georgia, then the mounting injuries and losses.
Everyone sees the results on the field and evaluates based on those. But there’s always a deeper story.
The emotional embrace Butch and Alex had after the Sept. 24 win over Florida was about more than UT breaking an 11-game losing streak in the series. It was about a physician’s assistant happening upon Alex’s congenital heart condition when he was a child in Mount Pleasant, Mich., his father then coaching at Central Michigan University.
Alex was the best player on his youth basketball team. But the family was told he couldn’t play contact sports past eighth grade because his heart had two valves instead of the normal three, and a significant shot to the chest could kill him.
“We were all just blown away,” Barb said.
Alex eventually decided to try kicking, and he started as a senior for Knoxville Catholic after his parents refused to let him quit in the preseason when he fell behind on the depth chart. As a 5-foot-5, 139-pound holder for the Vols, he has been able to share in his father's livelihood and gain an understanding of the work that goes into it.
Florida felt like an arrival and "meant a lot to us as a family,” Alex said, but a few weeks later he had a bad feeling as the Vols approached an Oct. 29 game at South Carolina.
The Florida and Georgia wins were followed by the first two losses of the season, 45-38 in overtime at Texas A&M, then 49-10 at home to No. 1 Alabama. The team was battered after a four-week stretch that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Butch was the toughest he’d ever witnessed.
The injuries to key players, especially on defense, were piling at an alarming rate. And though the team had a weekend off before South Carolina, the week of the game was challenging in other ways.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs pulled two all-nighters that week to finish an engineering project. The aerospace engineering major had a rough game in a 24-21 loss that ultimately cost the team a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference championship.
“That’s what people don’t get, don’t realize,” Alex said. “The week of that game we had other people with huge projects, people were struggling. People think we just show up to games and it’s always the same every week. We’re college students.”
Perspective has hit Alex in many ways this fall. He was a bit stunned by some of the venom he encountered after that loss “from people you thought you were close to,” he said.
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He and his family were heartened by the supportive comments they heard in Gatlinburg as they helped, along with several UT players, in the wake of devastating fires that ravaged the mountain resort town two days after the Vols lost to Vandy.
The previous week, a school bus crashed in Chattanooga, killing five children initially. A sixth, Keonte Wilson, was fighting for his life when Butch, Alex and Vols stars Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Jalen Reeves-Maybin visited him and other injured children two days later in the hospital. Alex learned that evening that Wilson had passed away.
“That’s life-changing,” Alex said of the experience.
Quality over quantity
Football families can bond over fleeting moments, amid the volatility of the business.
Butch’s fall included the rare opportunity to see Adam play. A sophomore safety and receiver who is already the tallest of the Joneses at 6-foot-2, he got on the field for the last five minutes of a Knoxville Catholic game during the Vols’ off week.
“Those are the best five minutes of football I’ve had in a long time,” Butch said.
A year earlier he was miles away and helpless when Adam broke his ankle the night before UT’s game at Alabama. The family tries to make up for all the time apart with short excursions, nature walks or just a few hours watching football together.
“We like to say we have quality as opposed to quantity," Barb said.
Butch got into coaching by writing letter after letter to his favorite NFL team, the Tampa Bay Bucs, until they agreed to have him on in 1987 as a college intern washing laundry. Then he got on the sideline during games.
Butch was making a $23,000 a year as offensive coordinator at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania when he took a $6,000 pay cut in 1995 to coach running backs at his alma mater. No benefits. Barb worked at the university and a bank to have enough money to pay the bills.
That’s the coaching life. A Bucs player during Butch’s intern days, Calvin Magee, later was offensive coordinator for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and helped Butch land a job on that staff coaching wide receivers in 2005. That vaulted Butch to successful head coaching gigs at Central Michigan and the University of Cincinnati, then UT.
Relationships and family are the stated foundations of Butch's career, but this is big business and big pressure — he has dismissed assistant coaches and may do so again after the bowl game, which means other coaching families forced to move elsewhere.
The Jones family was preparing on Dec. 22 for relatives on both sides to visit a house that is comfortable and traditionally decorated on the main floor, with a basketball court, pool and hot tub outside. The basement is part shrine, part recreation center, all recruiting tool.
Vols orange is everywhere, from the pool table to the couch pillows to the ribbon around a UT-themed Christmas tree. There’s a fire pit outside for roasting s’mores and a home theater for various uses — several Vols players stopped by in the summer to watch a boxing match.
The house used to belong to former pro baseball pitcher Joe Nathan, and Butch kept Nathan’s wall-size trophy case and filled it with championship and commemorative footballs. A signed Peyton Manning jersey is prominently featured.
Pittsburgh star receiver Antonio Brown, who played for Butch at Central Michigan, just sent a signed jersey for the display. His quarterback at CMU, Dan LeFevour, lived with the Jones family in Cincinnati while playing in 2010 for the Cincinnati Bengals, and later served as Adam’s Catholic confirmation sponsor.
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Kansas City star tight end Travis Kelce, who played for Butch at Cincinnati, texts often and especially after losses to lend support. Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe also played for Butch there and told the Denver Post this month that Butch and defensive line coach Steve Stripling were the coaches who had the most influence on his career.
The Butch Jones program includes families of all the coaches eating with the team each Monday during the season; Barb’s idea of inspirational notes from the coaches’ wives to each player before each game; Bible study once a week for those wives at the Jones house; and three players each week earning a container of Barb’s famous meat-and-cheese dip for overcoming adversity.
There have been no shortage of candidates for her dip during this surgery-filled fall. Butch and Barb laughed as they revealed the latest injury — the family dog, Abby, recently tore the anterior-cruciate ligament in one of her knees.
“And his knee is bad, too,” Barb said of Butch, and that’s how things can snowball, like negativity around a big-time college football program that comes up short of expectations.
This one could use a win over Nebraska, and it needs a strong 2017 season, or it might have a new leader. If that’s the case, the Joneses will have to re-cover that pool table, but they will take the relationships and experiences and lessons with them. They’d rather not indulge that scenario.
“We expect to be here a very long time,” Butch said.
Follow Joe Rexrode on Twitter @joerexrode.
FRANKLIN AMERICAN MORTGAGE MUSIC CITY BOWL
TENNESSEE (8-4) vs. NEBRASKA (9-3)
Where: Nissan Stadium
When: 2:30 p.m. Friday
TV/Radio: ESPN / 104.5-FM, 102.5-FM, 94.9-FM
THE BUTCH JONES FILE
Full name: Lyle Allen Jones Jr.
Hometown: Saugatuck, Mich.
Playing career: Walked on at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., before injuries forced him to stop playing.
Coaching career: Tampa Bay Bucs intern (1987-89); Rutgers grad assistant (1990-92); Wilkes University offensive coordinator (1993-94); Ferris State running backs coach and offensive coordinator (1995-97); Central Michigan University running backs, receivers, tight ends coach and offensive coordinator (1998-2004); West Virginia receivers coach (2005-06); Central Michigan head coach (2007-09); University of Cincinnati head coach (2010-12); Tennessee head coach (2013-present).
UT record: 29-21, 14-18 in SEC play
Family: Wife, Barb; sons Alex, 20; Adam, 15, Andrew, 9
Jones on the importance of "tough love" as a parent: “There’s two types of parents. There’s the parent who’s trying to prepare the path for the kid, and the parent who’s trying to prepare the kid for the path.”