The talk swirling around Butch Jones’ job security at Tennessee has never been more intense than it is right now, in the aftermath of the Vols’ 26-20 loss to bitter rival Florida on a last-second play in The Swamp. Not even last season, when Tennessee was coming off a disheartening loss to Vanderbilt, were so many people seemingly so anxious to fire the head ball coach.
And, yet, reasonable people agree that Butch Jones is not going anywhere — at least not anytime soon. At the very least, Jones has the rest of the 2017 season. Barring a major collapse, he has the 2018 season, as well. His inbound recruiting class — which ranks near the Top 5 nationally — guarantees him that, even if nothing else does.
Despite the gut-wrenching loss to Florida, the Vols have only one game remaining — at Alabama on Oct. 21 — that most wouldn’t give them a fighting chance in. The rest of UT’s SEC games are winnable — even the ones the Vols’ will be underdogs in, Georgia and LSU.
On paper, at least, Tennessee has just as much of a shot at finishing 9-3, or even 10-2, as it has of winding up on the other end of the spectrum, where bowl eligibility is a struggle. Either nine or 10 wins would be a regular-season best for the Butch Jones era in Knoxville. More than guaranteeing him additional time on the job, those scenarios would likely earn him a pay raise.
But here’s the thing about playing games on paper: While every SEC game, sans Alabama, is winnable for the Vols, every SEC game, sans no one, is loseable. The SEC East is hardly a college football juggernaut this season, but most of the teams in the division — including Vanderbilt, Kentucky and South Carolina — look stouter now than any of us expected when the season began. And with every new addition to the mounting list of injuries — this week it’s Cortez McDowell, who will it be next week? — Tennessee’s chances of a memorable season slip lower. That’s not Jones’ fault, but as my primary care physician told me once, “life ain’t fair, son, and if you think it is, I suggest you don’t stand too close to the highway.”
So let’s play the What If game. What if Tennessee’s season goes into a spiral? What if the powers-who-be in Knoxville opt for change? Two things most of us agree on: Eight wins will certainly earn Butch Jones at least one more year, but too many losses will cost him his job. He isn’t in danger of immediate dismissal, but he isn’t wearing Teflon hide, either.
No one knows the number of games Jones needs to win to save his job. Is it seven? Is it six? Chances are that 7-5 would be good enough. No raise, no contract extension, lots of grumbling from fans, but good enough. Chances are that 5-7 wouldn’t be good enough. And a doomsday scenario is probably more likely than any of us expected at the beginning of the season — not necessarily because Tennessee isn’t measuring up to our expectations, but because the rest of the SEC East is exceeding our expectations.
So what if there comes a point where even the most optimistic of Tennessee fans and the most loyal UT boosters agree that Butch Jones cannot take this program to the next level? What if all involved decide it’s time to move on?
Then Tennessee should bite the bullet.
It’s a bitter bullet to gnaw on, for sure. It hasn’t been too many years since Tennessee was paying buyouts for Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley, simultaneously, and had an athletics budget that would make a CPA cringe.
But those days are behind us. Tennessee’s athletics department is now the most profitable in the SEC. Change can be afforded.
Butch Jones’ buyout is fairly substantial — $7.5 million if Tennessee decides to make a change after this season. Throw in his assistants’ buyouts, and that number is over $10 million.
Then there is the next coach’s contract to consider. That won’t be cheap, either. Jones’ salary of $4.11 million ranks 18th nationally — pretty darned good. But in the SEC arms race, it’s chump change. Jones is only the ninth highest-paid coach in the conference.
If Jones fails, and Tennessee makes a change, the narrative will be this: the Vols paid bargain-basement prices for a coach, and they got what they got.
Maybe that narrative isn’t iron-clad, but there’s some truth to it. Tennessee would have paid more money back in 2012, if it could have gotten its choice. Charlie Strong or Mike Gundy would have likely made more than the sub-$3 million Jones was hired in under. Experienced Power 5 coaches weren’t exactly beating down the door to come to Tennessee back in 2012. A first-year athletics director, Dave Hart, did what a first-year athletics director had to do, and that was drop down his list of preferred coaches until he found a candidate with mutual interest.
It stands to reason that 2017 would be different. Say what you will about Jones, but he was absolutely the right hire for the time. He cleaned up the mess left by Derek Dooley — who was perhaps the most inept head coach in SEC history — and restocked the roster. If he isn’t the guy to lead Tennessee into the 2018 season, he will leave a roster with which a good coach can win immediately. If Tennessee makes a change, Jones’ predecessor will inherit a situation far better than the one Jones inherited back in 2012.
Which means what, exactly? It means Tennessee is an attractive job. Which means there are going to be some big-name coaches who would be interested. Which means Tennessee and its new first-year athletics director, John Currie, best be prepared to pony up some dough.
We can speculate about who those candidates might be all day long. Considering that we’re only speculating that Tennessee will even have an opening, it would be fruitless to build an exhaustive list of potential candidates. Besides, Tennessee won’t be the only Power 5 school with a job opening. Even in the SEC, there are likely to be other openings. Texas A&M, for sure. Maybe Arkansas. And I wouldn’t rule out LSU or Florida, either of which would certainly change the landscape of coaching searches this winter.
But we can start with the names that everyone loves to mention: Bob Stoops and Chip Kelly. Stoops caused a mini Twitter stir when it was revealed that he has followed several of UT’s recruits, and Kelly is the coach every fanbase is lusting after. Both have national championship game experience. Either would be — as the kids say — a “sexy” hire.
Either would also be an expensive hire. Think north of $5 million.
Likewise, if Tennessee were to go after a currently-employed coach — Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen seems to be the name tossed about most frequently — it could expect to pay in excess of $5 million.
That’s on top of the $10 million and change the university would spend to buy out its current coaching staff.
So is it worth it?
Tennessee didn’t become the SEC’s most profitable athletics department by chance. Dooley’s tenure resulted in more than defeats on the field. It was an economics nightmare. When fewer fans are attending games at Neyland Stadium, the losses are felt several layers deep. More than just ticket prices, there are concessions and merchandise to consider. It adds up. Significantly.
If the Vols don’t make the right hire and they sink back into the misery of the Dooley years, all those empty seats will once again begin to affect the bottom line. You put butts in seats by winning games and competing for championships. You win games and compete for championships by attracting good players. You attract good players by putting butts in seats and winning games. It’s a capitalistic economic engine that’s always churning, and everybody’s happy.
The rewards are worth the risks. Alabama’s Nick Saban will make in excess of $11 million once all is said and done this season — a number that any of us would have scoffed at just a few short years ago. And he’s worth every penny.
In fact, Alabama should be a lesson for why Tennessee should go the expensive route. Sure, Saban is the greatest coach of his generation and the Crimson Tide struck gold when they hired him. But there was a lesson learned in Alabama’s approach.
Like Tennessee, Alabama spent a decade wandering through the college football wilderness after Gene Stallings retired. From 1996 until the Saban hire in 2007, Alabama went through four head coaches: Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula. The Tide won eight or more games just three times during that span, and suffered three of its four losing seasons since Bear Bryant arrived on campus in 1958.
Finally fed up with losing, Alabama decided to bite the bullet. It picked a name and threw cost to the wind. Saban’s $11 million this season — which includes his base salary, bonuses and endorsements — is huge money, but his paycheck 10 years ago was equally astounding for that time. He was given an eight-year contract with $32 million guaranteed.
Want to argue that Saban is a special case? Fair enough. But it isn’t as though Alabama is the only college football program to spend big money in pursuit of championships.
Michigan spent nearly a decade wandering through the wilderness after Lloyd Carr, going through Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke with little success. But after firing Hoke in 2014, Michigan decided to go with a winner. It identified its target and went after it, without letting money be an option.
In short, Michigan adopted the Alabama model. The Wolverines lured Jim Harbaugh — a proven winner during his Stanford days — back to college football by making him the game’s highest-paid coach. In fact, Harbaugh’s total income in 2016 was $9 million, dwarfing Saban’s $6.9 million.
Was it worth it? You’d have a difficult time finding a Michigan fan who says no. After two seasons, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of if Michigan finds its way to the college football playoffs, but when.
Tennessee might find itself paying as much as $6 million or $7 million on a new coach next season, if it is truly interested in putting an end to the experiments with legacy names and up-and-comers. And, yes, it’s a bitter bullet to bite, especially for the average fan, who is being squeezed out of the stadium on gameday by rising costs. But fans like to win, even more than they like to attend games. And in college football’s arms race, loosening the purse strings is the name of the game.
It might be time for the Vols to loosen their own.