Butch Jones fired at Tennessee: Coach a great Vols football salesman with too thin skin, not enough wins
The things you remember from introductory press conferences aren’t always relevant. But for some reason, they just stick with you, long after the coach that was being introduced has moved on.
Former Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin said more than once in response to a question, “You just gotta win.” That was a good sign, I thought.
I also remember former Tennessee media relations director Bud Ford trying to set up a group photo shot after the press conference. Kiffin’s wife, Layla, who was pregnant, wasn’t too keen on the idea. Ford prevailed, and both Kiffins posed along with the UT president, athletic director and their wives.
A year later, when Derek Dooley was introduced as Kiffin’s successor, he got my attention by pretending to answer a phone, and using the word “boom.” Hmmm. He could be good theater, I thought. And he was.
I remember more details from Butch Jones’ first press conference. A Tennessee booster told me, “You’re going to like this guy.” He concluded that after Jones had mingled with prominent boosters before the media gathering.
Jones then told us Tennessee was his “dream job,” that he had the best coaching staff in America, that his system was infallible, and — critics take note — that he had thick skin. I had doubts about all of that. But given the context, his over-the-top comments were appropriate.
That was a rah-rah, feel-good moment in which a new coach needed to sell hope to a frustrated fan base that had suffered through four losing seasons in five years under three different coaches. Jones sold it well. It helped, of course, that he was selling his vision to almost-desperate fans.
He was just as successful at selling his program to recruits. He convinced four-star quarterback Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga., to back off his commitment to Arizona State and sign with the Vols.
Dobbs’ change of heart was one of the first hints that Jones was a great salesman. He could promote, too. Longtime Tennessee sports administrator Gus Manning, who worked with football coaches dating back to General Robert Neyland, said that UT never had a coach who could promote his program as well as Jones.
Jones’ salesmanship paid off. He quickly upgraded UT’s talent base, and the talent upgraded UT’s record. The Vols went from 5-7 to 7-6 and 9-4 in Jones’ first three seasons.
But even during the ascent, it became clear Jones couldn’t coach as well as he could sell. The Vols could have won the SEC East in 2015, and they should have won the division in 2016.
Those failings were magnified by the state of the division. Not since the conference went to divisional play in 1992 had the East been at such a low ebb. However, Tennessee couldn’t capitalize.
Something else became apparent: Jones’ personality didn’t fit a program as highly scrutinized as UT’s. He was too sensitive to criticism, which you could have surmised from his first press conference. People who are truly thick-skinned don’t feel compelled to announce that trait in a public forum.
Jones had little criticism in his previous jobs, at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Central Michigan is in the MAC, and the Cincinnati Bearcats are an after-thought in a pro town.
The gap between Jones and the Tennessee fan base widened during his five years. He celebrated winning minor bowl games and nine-win seasons; fans agonized over wasted opportunities to reach the SEC championship game.
The less appreciated Jones became, the more he forced the issue. He responded with “five-star hearts” and “championship of life.” He became a national punch line.
The irony is that as well as Jones could sell and promote, press conferences brought out the worst in him. He didn’t think well on his feet. That also was evident in games.
Nonetheless, Tennessee was better off for hiring him. His recruiting had made the job far more attractive than it was when he arrived.
And you shouldn’t be surprised if Jones succeeds elsewhere — at a less high-profile program — just as he did at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where the expectations aren’t comparable to those at Tennessee.
UT’s next coach needs to be aware of those expectations. He needs to understand that the program isn’t rebuilding.
He might want to mention that at his introductory press conference.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com. Follow him at: Twitter.com/johnadamksns.