Four years into his tenure at Tennessee, it’s still up for debate whether Butch Jones is a good enough football coach to win championships or a good personality fit in the highly scrutinized environment he signed up for.
His biggest problem is how often he wades into that debate himself.
Jones is a classic over-explainer, a point that was reinforced at the SEC’s spring meetings here when he made yet another comment that turned Vol Twitter into an inferno of disgust. Asked whether the Tennessee program is where Jones thought it would be by this point, he said the following:
“Well, it’s a journey and it’s a process. You know, I’m very, very grateful to all of the players and the staff that have really brought Tennessee back. We still have so much to do. And it’s all about winning championships. But the first element that goes into winning championships is contending to win championships on a consistent basis. And our program has done that.
“But when you look, two days on the job (in 2012) and having to have a perfect score of 1,000 or be the first college program to go on academic probation and all the sanctions that go along with that, and our players get 1,000 on the APR. You look at three straight bowl wins. There’s only three programs in the Southeastern Conference that have won nine games or more in the last two seasons, and Tennessee is one of them. We’re graduating our players. We’re putting our players in the National Football League.
“So I think the program is very, very strong. We talk about consistency in performance; we talk about sustained success. We’re having that right now and there’s a lot of positive momentum and energy that really is geared toward that.”
On its face, nothing about that answer should offend the sensibilities of a fan base that is desperate to contend with Alabama or just win what has been a down SEC East. But given that Jones is 14-18 in the conference and coming off a season in which he blew a trip to the championship game by losing to South Carolina and Vandy, it’s questionable at best whether Tennessee is actually contending to win championships.
Combined with Jones’ much-mocked “Champions of Life” quote in December, it’s hard to blame Vols fans for thinking their coach is Pollyannish at best and delusional at worst about his own record. And it’s gotten to the point where every word out of his mouth is now the subject of a forensic analysis among Tennessee fans.
Though he’s only been on the job about two months, new athletics director John Currie can quote all the same statistics as his coach. The sliding APR score when Jones arrived. The dearth of NFL draft picks on the roster. The three consecutive winning seasons Jones has put together for the first time at Tennessee since 2002-04.
It would be unfair, this early in his tenure, for Currie to diagnose the disconnect between the real progress Tennessee has made under Jones and the toxic assessment of him that swirls around the social media sphere, largely because Jones doesn’t always seem to “get it” with regard to the massive expectations Tennessee fans have of him.
But for now, anyway, Currie sees only positives.
“I’m excited to walk into an environment that we have with Coach Jones, and certainly his words and my words, everybody’s words at Tennessee are parsed up pretty good because our fans are passionate about the University of Tennessee,” Currie told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s a smart coach and a good person and he cares. What I believe is that when you have a coach who’s taken over a situation with all the things he took over, and you march forward, you get better at all your stuff. It takes a while in this environment to learn how to manage it because so many people want to know stuff. He’s earned the right to say less because we’ve won a bunch of football games over the last four years.”
The problem is, Jones isn’t going to say less. He is afflicted with too much insecurity in a business where you’re losing if you’re explaining, no matter how much you’re winning.
That’s why it was so damaging when Jones said Tennessee’s seniors were “Champions of Life” coming off a 9-4 season that was, by pretty much every measure, a disappointment. Though Jones may have meant nothing more than to express pride in his players, it smacked of telling his fans how to feel. In college football, that never works.
Jones, who would be owed $7.5 million if he were fired after the 2017 season, clearly didn’t care about the backlash because he waded back into similar waters this week when he suggested Tennessee has been “contending to win championships on a consistent basis” as a precursor to actually winning them.
That again offended some fans because while it’s technically true that Tennessee was “contending” for the SEC East title the last two years, finishing behind a Florida team that wasn’t even competitive against Alabama in the championship game doesn’t suggest that Tennessee has even come close to winning anything significant.
Currie declined to get into the semantics of whether the Vols have or haven’t been contending.
“I can’t assess that,” he said. “I haven’t been here. I know we’ve won as many games in the last three years as almost anybody in the conference and winning games is a big step towards winning championships. Certainly there’s been opportunities to break through and I believe we’re on the cusp of that.”
This season is going to be a crucial, and potentially difficult one for the relationship between Jones’ mouth and Tennessee fans’ Twitter accounts. The Vols have turned over a lot of talent, including at quarterback, and will have to play at both Florida and Alabama. Georgia’s recruiting resurgence under Kirby Smart doesn’t help. There could be one more backward step before the Vols are primed for another run at the East.
It would probably be better for everyone if Tennessee fans just chilled out on every inane slogan and prepackaged narrative Jones comes up with to justify his tenure, but that train may already be too far off the tracks. In the end, whether Jones can do the job at the level Tennessee expects will be abundantly clear — with or without the noise.
Currie, however, won’t discourage Tennessee fans from speaking their mind. And as someone who embraces Twitter, he knows they have a lot to say.
“I don’t ever want to tell our fan base to chill because to have 100,000 people show up, one of the largest environments in the country, you better not be chillin’,” he said. “You better be passionate. You’re never going to have 100,000 people all think every play is perfect. We’re just blessed we have 100,000 people are we’re going to continue to reach out and thank that group. We’re lucky we have great passion at the University of Tennessee, and that passion will eventually drive us back to the top of the trophy pile.”