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The rise and fall of Butch Jones: A fan’s perspective

Photo: UTSports.com

December 5, 2012. It was an interesting first week of December. Like the rest of the Tennessee football fan base, I spent too much time every day scouring headlines and tweets, anxious for any tidbit of information about the Vols’ coaching search in the wake of Derek Dooley’s termination. I didn’t write about UT football in any form or fashion back then, other than posting my “10 Points” series after each game on my personal blog. I knew some folks, and knew some more folks who knew some other folks, and I would take any information they offered, but I tended to not bother them with pesky phone calls. I wanted to watch the search play out.

Tennessee’s search seemed to have focused on one guy: Louisville’s Charlie Strong. The Vols had reached out to Jon Gruden, but he wasn’t leaving ESPN. There had also been talks with Mike Gundy, but he wasn’t leaving Oklahoma State; had used the Vols, in fact, to earn himself a raise from the Cowboys. North Carolina’s Larry Fedora was being mentioned as a possibility.

But Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart had left Louisville with an offer on the table. The job was Strong’s to turn down. And it was assumed that he was going to be the Vols’ next coach.

It didn’t happen, though. Strong decided to stay put in Louisville. Tennessee was down to its third (fourth?) option. The fan base was not excited about Fedora, even though he had gone 8-4 in his first season with the Tar Heels.

On the same day, Cincinnati’s Butch Jones was set to become the new head coach at Colorado, replacing Jon Embree, who had been fired after two seasons. At that point, Jones was hardly a blip on the radar of Tennessee’s coaching search.

But things were about to change.

December 6, 2012. No sooner did Strong rebuff Tennessee’s offer than did Jones stun Colorado by rejecting its advances. The Buffaloes’ fan base believed they had Jones in hand; wanted him to be their next coach, in fact.

Jones’ rejection could only mean one thing: he had received an 11th hour offer from Tennessee, or expected an offer to be forthcoming.

I knew little about Butch Jones, aside from the fact that Dooley’s Tennessee team had earned an exciting win over his Bearcats a couple of years earlier. My five-year-old son and I were at that Tennessee-Cincinnati game, watching from our season-ticket seats in Section AA, Row 5. What stood out to me about the game? Cincinnati had attempted an onside kick, had twice gone for it on fourth down near midfield. Jones appeared to be an aggressive coach who was willing to take chances. I liked that. Leave it all on the field. With the conservative tendencies of Phillip Fulmer still relatively fresh in the rearview mirror, Jones’ style seemed like a welcome contrast.

It would’ve been fair to call Jones a Google coach before the terminology began to be widely used by sports fans on internet messageboards. As speculation began to spread that Jones had turned down Colorado because he was interested in the Tennessee job, countless Vol fans turned to the ‘net to research the Cincinnati coach.

I was one of those fans.

I liked what I read. Like many UT fans, I was hardly enamored by Fedora. But Jones? This guy seemed like the kind of guy who was cut out for the rebuilding job that was ahead of him in Knoxville.

“Go get your guy, Dave Hart,” I remember thinking.

December 7, 2012. Butch Jones started his day with a 7:30 a.m. team meeting in Cincinnati, where he told “Team 125” — his descriptor for the Bearcats — that he had accepted the coaching job at Tennessee. By that afternoon, he had met with Tennessee’s players, and was meeting with the media. In hindsight, there were red flags during that introductory press conference. But, at that time and in that setting, Jones said what he needed to say. He oozed confidence as he spoke. He called Tennessee football the best job in America. He talked about winning championships. He said he was going to put together the best coaching staff in America. He talked about his open-door policy for former players. He talked about the importance of winning over high school coaches in Tennessee. He didn’t say “brick by brick” in his opening statement (he said “inch by inch” instead).

For a guy who was following Dooley, he said everything he needed to say. Dooley had alienated former players, had alienated high school coaches. Those were small things, but important things. “Butch gets it,” some thought. And many UT fans were excited.

I was one of those fans.

February 6, 2013. National Signing Day. The Vols were putting the finishing wraps on a recruiting class that was ranked No. 21 nationally. It wasn’t a great class; Dooley, for all his shortcomings, had managed to sign the nation’s No. 17 class a year earlier. But for a transitional year, it seemed like a formidable task. Jones, it appeared, had salvaged the class. Among the class were guys like four-star wide receiver Marquez North, four-star athlete Jalen Reeves-Maybin, three-star defensive end Kendal Vickers, three-star quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and three-star defensive back Cameron Sutton.

August 17, 2013. Butch Jones held an open practice and team scrimmage at Neyland Stadium two weeks before Tennessee’s season opener. Tens of thousands of UT fans turned out to get their first glimpse of Team 117. There was loud music. Jones barking instructions over the P.A. system. The Pride of the Southland Band was there. Jones’ up-tempo practices had already been much discussed, and fans were getting a chance to experience one of those practices in person. It seemed like an ingenious marketing effort. “Butch gets it.”

October 5, 2013. Tennessee was off to a 3-2 start when No. 5 Georgia visited Neyland Stadium on October 5. The Vols had beaten Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama, and had lost at No. 2 Oregon and No. 19 Florida. They had beaten who they were supposed to beat, lost to who they were supposed to lose to. They were undefeated at Neyland Stadium, but also big underdogs against Mark Richt’s Bulldogs, who had won three straight over the Vols.

Tennessee played above itself that afternoon. When the Vols blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown with 1:25 remaining in the third quarter — tying the game at 17 — Neyland Stadium was louder than it had been in years . . . maybe ever.

Ultimately, Georgia won the game in overtime. The Vols lost when Pig Howard fumbled at the goal line while trying to score a touchdown. It was close — so close you could hardly slide a sheet of paper between the ball and the pylon when it began to wiggle loose from Howard’s grasp. The Bulldogs had prevailed . . . but just barely. Things were changing, it seemed.

October 19, 2013. Tennessee was coming off a near-upset of No. 5 Georgia when No. 11 South Carolina visited Neyland Stadium on October 19. The stadium was sold out for a third consecutive game. The Vols were again underdogs, but the sense was that the tide was turning.

The Vols again played above themselves. And when Michael Palardy banged home a 19-yard field goal as time expired to give Tennessee a 23-21 win, it was euphoria for the Big Orange fan base. Jones and Hart chest-bumped. Tennessee football was back. No one could have imagined at the time that it would be the biggest win of the Butch Jones era.

November 23, 2013. Tennessee fans were riding high after the Vols knocked off No. 11 South Carolina and almost knocked off No. 5 Georgia. But their glee had been tempered by three consecutive losses — at No. 1 Alabama, at No. 10 Missouri, and against No. 9 Auburn. None of the games had been close. But, then, they hadn’t necessarily been expected to be close. It had been a murderous schedule for the Vols, and three Top 10 teams in as many weeks was ridiculously crazy for a UT team that had already stood toe-to-toe with two other Top 10 teams the two games before that stretch.

So a sold-out crowd of 102,455 showed up to see Tennessee battle Vanderbilt that day. The Vols needed a win over the Commodores to achieve bowl eligibility. They couldn’t do it. Vanderbilt scored in the waning seconds on a bitterly cold night in Knoxville, winning 14-10. The salt in the wound? The winning touchdown was scored by Patton Robinette — a quarterback who had played high school ball just down the road in Maryville. It was a gut-punch. But, hey, it was just Year One of the Butch Jones era.

February 5, 2014. It was National Signing Day again. And if there was any residual disappointment from Tennessee’s season-ending loss to Vanderbilt 10 weeks earlier, it was gone by the time the fax machine stopped ringing. It was a consensus Top 10 class, and was a Top 5 class according to most recruiting services, including Rivals.com. It was the Vols’ first Top 10 signing class since 2010, and the best signing class overall since the Phillip Fulmer era ended. It included players like Josh Malone, Derek Barnett, Rashaan Gaulden, Cortez McDowell, Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr. and Vic Wharton.

October 4, 2014. Tennessee’s offense was mostly inept against Florida on a chilly early October afternoon that saw fans checkerboard Neyland Stadium for the first time. Nevertheless, the Vols led 9-0 as the fourth quarter began, and appeared to be on the verge of snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Gators.

But the wheels came off in the fourth quarter. Freshman quarterback Treon Harris led the Gators to a come-from-behind, 10-9 win over Tennessee. For the first time, some began to openly question whether Butch Jones was cut out for big-boy football and the weekly grind of the SEC.

November 29, 2014. Tennessee had demolished Kentucky, 50-16, two weeks earlier but had been unable to get past nationally-ranked Missouri, 29-21. The Vols headed to Nashville to face Vanderbilt with a 5-6 record, needing a win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs ran for two touchdowns as Tennessee snapped a two-game losing streak to the Commodores with a 24-17 win, earning a berth against Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville.

December 8, 2014. It had been a little over a week since Butch Jones had led Tennessee to bowl eligibility for the first time in four seasons with a win over Vanderbilt. Reports had emerged that Michigan was interested in hiring Jones to replace Brady Hoke. But on December 8, Tennessee athletics director doused the Michigan talk by announcing that Jones was receiving a two-year contract extension (through 2021) and a pay raise to $3.6 million per year. It was money well spent, most assumed at the time. As Hart put it, “We have the right man leading our football program.”

January 2, 2015. Tennessee put a hurting on Iowa, winning 45-28 in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. Vols fans were riding a high, with the program’s first winning season since 2009, and the program itself was riding a wave of momentum into the run-up to National Signing Day.

February 4, 2015. National Signing Day again saw Tennessee complete a good haul, with the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class as ranked by Rivals.com. It was the first back-to-back Top 5 signing classes for Tennessee since the early ’90s. Some felt it might be the best back-to-back classes in school history. It was a great class filled with guys like Alvin Kamara, Shy Tuttle, Preston Williams and Jack Jones. It was made even better by the late steals of Drew Richmond and Kyle Phillips. Clearly, it seemed, it was only a matter of time before Tennessee was winning SEC and — dare we say it? — national championships.

September 12, 2015. Knoxville was on fire when Bob Stoops brought his No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners to town on Sept. 12, 2015 to face No. 23 Tennessee. The Vols had entered the polls for the first time since 2012 after hanging 59 points on Bowling Green in the season opener. Fans were checkerboarding Neyland Stadium again. And although it hadn’t worked out well for Tennessee’s game against Florida in 2014, there was plenty of reason to speculate that Tennessee was set for a breakthrough win.

When the Vols jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the Sooners, everything seemed to be heading in the right direction. But something happened: with Tennessee’s offense on the goal line, Jones sent junior quarterback Josh Dobbs into the shotgun. And when the Vols failed to punch it in, he chose to kick a field goal. There was plenty of grumbling inside the stadium. Talk about foreshadowing. But no one knew it at the time.

Ultimately, Oklahoma came back to tie the game and force overtime, eventually pulling out a 31-24 win.

October 3, 2015. Tennessee had gone from the highest of highs with a No. 23 national ranking and anticipation of a big-time showdown against Oklahoma to the lowest of lows.

First, the Vols had blown a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead at Florida, giving up a 62-yard touchdown to the Gators on fourth-and-forever. When Aaron Medley’s last-gasp field goal sailed wide, Florida escaped with an improbable 28-27 lead. John Jancek’s defense was widely criticized — he used a spy on the fourth-and-long play, although Will Grier (who would later be dismissed from his team amid a drug-use scandal) — as was Jones’ refusal to go for two after Tennessee scored to take a 26-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Jones blamed his chart, a situational breakdown that coaches use to make decisions on points after touchdown tries, which would become stigmatic.

Then, Evan Berry returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Arkansas and the Vols jumped to a 14-0 lead, only to see the Razorbacks come back to win, 24-20, against a Tennessee offense that looked lethargic for the game’s final three quarters. Tennessee had lost three out of four games, all of them after holding two-touchdown leads.

October 6, 2015. Just three days after Tennessee’s disappointing loss to Arkansas dropped the Vols to 2-3 on the season, a report emerged that Jones had been involved in an altercation with offensive lineman Mack Crowder, a fifth-year senior, during fall camp. Jones vehemently denied the rumors, but a Gridiron Now report emerged claiming that video evidence existed of Jones striking Crowder.

For the first time, some Tennessee fans began to openly speculate about the possibility of the Vols firing Jones.

January 1, 2016. If there had been disgruntlement in the Tennessee fan base, it had largely evaporated by New Year’s Day 2016. Tennessee had won five consecutive games to close out the regular season with a record of 8-4, and Jones had received a $500,000 pay raise. Then the Vols traveled to Tampa and drubbed No. 12 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, 45-6.

The stage appeared to be set for a serious run at the SEC East championship. As Tennessee left Tampa, the site of the 2016 national championship game, some suggested the Vols would be back at Raymond James Stadium in 12 months. They were only half kidding.

February 3, 2016. Tennessee completed National Signing Day with a recruiting class that was ranked No. 15 in the nation, according to Rivals.com. It wasn’t as good as the Vols’ previous two classes, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The 2016 recruiting cycle was supposed to be an “off-cycle” for the Vols. And with highly-touted quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and sought-after defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo among those signing letters of intent, it was hardly a bad class. Everything still appeared to be on track for Tennessee.

February 24, 2016. After all the good news, there had to be some bad news lurking somewhere for Tennessee. It came on Feb. 24, 2016, when a lawsuit alleged that Jones had called former player Drae Bowles a traitor after Bowles helped the alleged victim of a sexual assault that had been committed by two other Tennessee players, A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams. Jones called the report “an attack on his character,” but it was a cringe-inducing allegation, every bit as troublesome as a report four months earlier that claimed Jones had been involved in a physical altercation with one of his players.

September 24, 2016. Tennessee’s run at the SEC East title appeared to be on track. The Vols scored 38 consecutive points to defeat Florida, 38-28, after falling into a 21-0 hole early. It was a thrilling win, and one that snapped UT’s 11-game losing streak to the Gators. Tennessee was 4-0, despite lackluster wins over Appalachian State and Ohio. More importantly: the Vols were 1-0 in the SEC, and had cleared one of their biggest hurdles in the East division. One week later, Tennessee would again come from behind, this time to beat Georgia on a Hail Mary as time expired. It was an even more thrilling win, and the Vols were in control of the SEC East for the first time since 2007. They were ranked No. 9 in the country. Life was good.

November 5, 2016. Tennessee’s 5-0 start and No. 9 national ranking seemed to be a distant memory. The Vols were riding a three-game losing streak, and the masses were getting restless. First there had been an overtime loss at Texas A&M. Then a shellacking at the hands of Alabama. Those two games had Tennessee in trouble in the SEC East race, but there was still a chance to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game if LSU could take care of its business against Florida.

But Tennessee had knocked itself out of contention with a 24-21 loss to South Carolina, which had been a 13-point underdog. So no one was happy when Tennessee Tech visited Neyland Stadium for homecoming on Nov. 5. Tennessee played well enough in the first half, scoring five touchdowns to take a 35-0 lead. But as the half wound down, the Vols lined up for a field goal attempt. Despite the 35-0 lead, frustrated fans were looking to vent at the expense of the Golden Eagles. They didn’t want three points; they wanted seven. Some fans, mostly students, booed Jones’ decision to trot on Aaron Medley for the field goal attempt. Jones, clearly affected by the pressure he was beginning to feel, was caught on camera as he waved his arms at the Neyland Stadium crowd of 98,000 and said, “F*** them all.”

It was especially noteworthy because just five days earlier, Jones had gotten testy with reporters at a press conference. With news of Jalen Hurd’s transfer from the program, reporters bombarded Jones with tough questions, until he finally refused to answer any more. Then he called out a “female reporter” who had left the press conference before its conclusion to file her report, and accused some reporters of making up stuff. He didn’t use the words “fake news” at that Oct. 31 press conference, but it was a foreshadowing of things to come.

Clearly, the honeymoon was over.

November 26, 2016. Tennessee wasn’t going to win its first divisional championship in nine years, not going to go to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007. But there was still plenty to play for as the No. 18 Vols traveled to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Nov. 26. It was an opportunity to end a disappointing season with a berth in the Sugar Bowl, which would have been UT’s first since 1990 (the year Andy Kelly and Tony Thompson led Tennessee back from a 16-0 deficit against Shawn Moore and Virginia).

That didn’t happen, as Vanderbilt out-scored Tennessee 21-3 to win the game. It was Jones’ second loss to Vanderbilt, and there was speculation that the Vols had played disinterested in the second half.

A not-insignificant chunk of the Tennessee fan base would have fired Jones on the spot, if given the opportunity. But most reasonable people knew and accepted that Jones was hardly going anywhere. You don’t fire a fourth-year coach for one disappointing season. Not when he’s turned around a program that was in shambles.

Still, it was apparent that Jones had used up most of his equity with the losses to South Carolina and Vandy, not to mention the other incidents that had occurred. And he didn’t help himself by trotting out phrases that earned him ridicule on the national scene, such as “champions of life.” It was official: Butch Jones was going to be on the hot seat as the 2017 season began.

September 25, 2017. It had been a tough start to the season. Butch Jones had tussled with SEC commentator Paul Finebaum during the offseason after Finebaum charged that Jones was lowering expectations at Tennessee. The Vols had struggled to put away Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, giving up a school-record 535 rushing yards despite winning in double overtime. Worst of all, Tennessee had blown a game at Florida, losing 26-20 on a 63-yard touchdown bomb as time expired. It was a game the Vols had virtually dominated, but they had struggled mightily in the red zone, and fans blamed play-calling.

Then Tennessee had hosted Massachusetts on Sept. 23 and turned what should have been a blowout win into a snooze-fest. The Vols managed a couple of late second quarter touchdowns, then didn’t find the end zone again. If not for injuries to their quarterback and best receiver, the Minutemen might have pulled off an inexplicable win in Knoxville.

So by the time Jones met with reporters at a Sept. 25 press conference, neither side was in a joking mood. When Jimmy Hyams asked about an injury to Shy Tuttle (Tuttle had missed the UMass game with a fractured eye socket after a fight with teammate Nigel Warrior; Jones said Tuttle had fallen on a helmet), Jones launched into a tirade, accusing Knoxville media of fabricating news reports and of “overwhelming negativity” that was hurting the program.

September 30, 2017. The day started poorly, with ESPN’s College Gameday crew mocking Jones’ tirade at reporters from earlier in the week. Then No. 7 Georgia put a 41-0 beatdown on the Vols. It was clearly the lowest point of the Butch Jones era. He appeared to have lost most of his support from within the fan base, and calls for his termination became deafening.

November 11, 2017. The 41-0 loss to Georgia on Sept. 30 had been bad. But things had gone from bad to worse. Tennessee lost its fifth game in six outings in embarrassing fashion, giving up 50 points to Missouri. (It should’ve been 57 points; Missouri clearly scored with 2:03 remaining, but officials chose not to review the play after it was ruled dead at the one-yard-line, and Mizzou ran out the clock.) After the game, athletics director John Currie informed Jones that he was being relieved of his duties. Jones was given the option of coaching the Vols’ final two games of the season, but declined.

It was the right call, but too late. Jones should not have been given the opportunity to finish out the season and should have been fired after the Vols’ loss to Alabama. By that point, it was clear that the situation had become toxic. It was also clear that a change would be made by the end of the season, if not sooner. Could Tennessee have beaten Kentucky with an interim coach? Maybe not, but the chances would’ve probably been better than if Jones had been coaching. For the sake of pride, if for no other reason, Jones should have been relieved of his duties sooner. Impressions are everything, especially to impressionable 18-year-old recruits.

So how did it get to this point? From where things stood back in February 2015 or even as recently as October 2016, to where we are now? For four seasons, the narrative was that Butch Jones had done an enviable job of rebuilding a program that had been left in shambles by Derek Dooley. He had embraced former players and high school coaches, two groups that Dooley had alienated. He had re-energized the fan base. He had restocked the cupboard.

Yet here we are in November 2017, and former players have plenty of harsh things to say about Jones, as do some high school coaches. Fans are more apathetic now than they were in 2012. The cupboard isn’t empty, but injuries and attrition have left it hardly full. There’s no longer a solid argument to be made that Butch Jones was a better option than Derek Dooley. And while he will leave the program better than he found it, with a roster that will make it easier for a coach to win in 2018 than the roster he inherited for the 2013 season, this program is not leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in 2012.

For a coach who once had a certain rock star appeal in Knoxville, the speed of his fall is almost stunning . . . until you go back and evaluate the red flags that were overlooked at the time. And then you realize that we’ve been pointed towards this day for at least three years.

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