KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s been a running dialogue among those both closely and loosely connected to University of Tennessee football over the past year. It goes something like this: “Butch Jones is his own worst enemy.”
That was true last year, when Jones compounded losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt with statements about “champions of life” and “five-star heart.”
And it was true Monday, when Jones ranted at reporters near the end of his weekly press conference, attacking what he perceives as negativity.
Jones was asked a question about the nature of an injury to Shy Tuttle, who missed Saturday’s game against Massachusetts for an unspecified injury. Speculation had been rampant that Tuttle was injured during a fight with a teammate.
“I think we have to understand, what do we want out of our media?” Jones asked. For the next two minutes, he lectured the reporters gathered in the room about how to do their jobs, saying that the “negativity” created by the media is sometimes “overwhelming.”
“If everyone as Vols fans, how do we let our opponents use this in the recruiting process with fake news?” Jones asked. “Sometimes, again we have to check ourselves. What are we here for? What’s our values and principles that guide our life every single day? And I appreciate everyone in this room. You guys have a job to do and I’m respectful of that. I’m friends with a lot of you guys in the room and I appreciate it, but also there comes a certain time when enough is enough.”
With that, Jones dropped the mic — proverbially speaking, of course — and exited the room.
Jones “champions of life” and “five-star heart” statements from last season were well-intended, but irritated a fan base already stinging from a pair of bad conference losses to close out a season in which Tennessee was expected to win the SEC East. They also subjected him to ridicule on a national level.
Monday’s comments also appeared to be calculated, but again left him on the wrong side of the PR battle that is ever being waged between college football’s coaching regimes, the media and fan bases.
To understand the magnitude of what Jones said, consider this: on a day when it was announced that felony charges had been levied against three Florida players, one of which told his girlfriend that he had received money from an agent, that story was not the lead on Paul Finebaum’s daily SEC show. Butch Jones’ press conference was.
To understand how ill-timed Jones’ comments were, consider the response from VolQuest.com’s Brent Hubbs. It goes without saying that Hubbs has cause for bias; he was one of the reporters in the room. But Hubbs is also plugged in to the UT program as a contributor to the Vol Network. More than that, he is perhaps the most-respected writer on the Tennessee beat.
“It’s not a good look for Butch Jones today,” Hubbs said. “Almost to the end, then he started telling the media what to do. This is not the time of the year, with Georgia coming in, with where they were after a poor performance against UMass, to start telling other people how to do their jobs.”
There are a number of things about Monday’s tirade that stood out and deserved to be addressed. Among them:
Tuttle fell on a helmet?
The question that started the diatribe was not an inappropriate question. Multitudes of fans were speculating about the nature of Shy Tuttle’s injury, and Jimmy Hyams asked a straight-forward question about that: “Was Shy Tuttle’s injury related to a teammate causing him to be injured?”
The question was originally posed by John Adams of the Knoxville News Sentinel, who was cut off by a sports information staffer. The mic was passed to Hyams, who repeated the question.
It stands to reason that no one — not Adams, not Hyams, nor anyone else in the room — expected Jones to admit that two of his players had been involved in an altercation at practice. That’s not how coaches handle such matters, nor is it how they should handle such matters.
But instead of being coy in his response, maybe mentioning that the matter had been disposed of internally, or using any of the other built-in “coach speak” that coaches typically use in response to such questions, Jones alluded that, yes, there had been an altercation: “Well, I’ll tell you this,” Jones said, “football is an emotional game, it’s a competitive game.”
Then he switched directions: “The injury was not caused by a teammate. He landed on a helmet. And that’s the truth.”
With that line, Jones took a relatively common situation, which deserved a relatively simple response, and mangled it.
It’s ironic that Jones went on to accuse the media of “fake news.” Monday’s press conference was not the first time this year that Jones has chosen that terminology. This time, he insinuated that it hurts recruiting, saying, “Everyone as Vol fans, how do we let our opponents use this in the recruiting process as fake news?”
But the only part that was fake was what Jones had just told reporters. In case you missed it, multiple sources — including Hyams, who posed the question — have since reported that Tuttle suffered an injury after being involved in an altercation with sophomore defensive back Nigel Warrior. Jones, though, flat-out said that Tuttle was not injured by a teammate.
Fortunately, Jones seemed confident that Tuttle would return for this week’s game against Georgia. Sources told AllThingsVol over the weekend that Tuttle might miss extended playing time with a fractured eye socket. As Hyams alluded to in his report Tuesday afternoon, different sources are saying different things about the seriousness of Tuttle’s injury. But one thing they’re all in agreement on: Tuttle suffered an eye injury in a fight with a teammate.
This goes back to something radio host Russell Smith touched on three weeks ago. Smith offered the harshest criticism of Jones of any of the Knoxville media to date, calling him a liar.
“One can’t help but wonder if part of the reason for the chaotic nature of Tennessee football under Butch Jones is that nobody — and I say nobody, media, fans, and now even his own players — can trust anything that the coach says,” Smith said at the time.
The media’s job isn’t to tote water
Jones started his Monday afternoon tirade by asking a pointed question: “I think we have to understand, what do we want out of our media?”
This point should go without saying, but Jones understands the tendencies of fans and he was playing to their emotions on Monday. Adams, the News Sentinel columnist, is one of the most disliked writers around Tennessee athletics because he’s brutally honest — and, admittedly, sometimes overly critical. That is what he is paid to do, but fans don’t like that approach.
It’s true, though. It isn’t the job of the media to carry water for the program, for its coaches or for its student-athletes. Reporters are tasked with informing their audience, which is the fans. If they’re glossing over news — or intentionally ignoring stories — to satisfy coaches or administrators, they aren’t doing their job effectively.
For that matter, even if stories coming out of a program are negative enough to hurt recruiting, that isn’t the fault of reporters. Is there such a thing as being too negative; of looking too hard for drama? Certainly. But consider it this way: if there was news of pending NCAA sanctions against a program, should the press ignore that story for the sake of avoiding the recruiting fallout? Certainly not. Besides, Tennessee’s current recruiting ranking — No. 6 in the nation and No. 1 in the SEC — would indicate that recruiting isn’t suffering at the moment.
As Mark Nagi puts it, “It is not the media’s job to serve as an extension of the university. The media is there to cover the team and serve readers/viewers/listeners. If something is newsworthy, it should be discussed.”
The media could have taken the Tuttle speculation and run with it, without awaiting verification from the coach. Instead, Hyams and his colleagues attempted to handle the matter professionally, by sitting on the “story,” even when their readers were hounding them with questions about it, until Jones was available to speak. As reporter Grant Ramey asked, “Did anyone report an altercation between Shy Tuttle and a teammate? Is it Fake News or Fake Questions?”
Is Jones cracking?
Monday’s press conference was not the first time Jones has gone on a tirade about the media. It happened a couple of times last year, when the heat was rising after the Vols’ late-season collapse.
It’s an interesting complaint, because the Knoxville media — as Nagi pointed out — hardly creates a pressure-cooker effect. Oh, there’s some criticism from the hometown guys, of course. Smith and radio host Tony Basilio are certainly not fans of Jones, and aren’t shy about saying so. But those guys aren’t in the room for Jones’ press conferences. The UT beat guys are a different story. It would be easy to say that this is the SEC and the SEC is always a pressure-cooker, and that would be true to a point. But the truth is that the UT beat writers are gentle for a Power 5 program where expectations are always high.
If Jones wants negativity, he’ll certainly find it from the national media. The national sports pundits have ridiculed Jones’ slogans, his results on the field, even his trash can. CBS Sports’ Barrett Sallee — who will be in Knoxville for Saturday’s game against Georgia — has called for Jones to be fired, and has even said he believes this week’s game against Georgia will be Jones’ last.
But, again, those national writers aren’t in the room for Jones’ press conferences. Jones’ comments were directed at the local media.
And what is especially interesting is who, specifically, drew Jones’ ire.
If there is such a thing as an ally for Jones among the media, Jimmy Hyams would certainly be on the short list. In fact, only one person — SEC Country’s Mike Griffith — might rank above Hyams.
That isn’t intended to be derogatory towards Hyams, who is one of the best in the business. It simply means that where some are quick to find fault, easy to provoke, fast to critique, Hyams is thoughtful and balanced in his approach.
And now Jones is throwing Hyams under the bus?
If it has come to this — with Jones feuding with one of the most genial sports writers in the business and one who Jones could traditionally have counted on to keep fans’ expectations measured — what does it tell us?
It tells me that Jones is cracking under the pressure. And it isn’t the first indication that this is true. Jones’ sideline demeanor during the Vols’ win over Massachusetts was uncharacteristic, even for him. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the second quarter, which led to a UMass score on the next play, was brow-raising.
There were some who argued, even after the Florida loss, that Jones was not on the hot seat.
To the contrary, Jones’ seat was growing quite hot after the Florida loss. It grew even hotter after the Vols’ struggles against America’s only 0-5 team. And if Monday’s press conference is any indication, Jones is beginning to show the wear and tear of that pressure.
What does that mean for Jones’ future? To me, it means he’s probably finished at Tennessee after this season. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that he gets fired. It could mean that he goes the Cuonzo Martin route.
Either way, Russell Smith’s words from three weeks ago now appear solidified: Jones’ tenure with the media is irreconcilable. And as so many have said in the past 24 hours, this won’t — can’t — end well.