To connect with fanbase, Tennessee's Butch Jones needs to drop the cliches and get real

2:19 | College Football
#DearAndy: Is it too late for Butch Jones at Tennessee barring a huge run?
Tuesday July 11th, 2017

HOOVER, Ala. — Want to understand precisely why Butch Jones has lost a healthy chunk of Tennessee’s fanbase? Read the answer to this question posed to Jones on Monday at SEC Media Days.

Question: Coach, considering the last season and the fact that you guys were a top 10 team and only finished 9-4, 22nd overall, do you view that last season as a disappointment?

Jones: I don't view it as a disappointment. The way I view it is we didn't accomplish everything we set ourselves out to. And, again, our goal every year is to win a championship and compete to win a championship. So, was it a disappointment? No. Did we not accomplish some of the things we set out to do? Absolutely. We have to learn from the things that went wrong that we could have done better.

Was last season a disappointment? Of course it was a disappointment. The most talented Tennessee team since the Phillip Fulmer era broke an 11-year losing streak against Florida, won on a Hail Mary at Georgia and then somehow failed to win a down SEC East. The Volunteers essentially lost the division when they lost to a 6-6 South Carolina team despite coming off an open date. Then, when asked in November how his departing players might feel having never won the East title, Jones said this…

Five days later, the Vols lost out on a Sugar Bowl trip when Vanderbilt hung 45 points on them in the final game of the regular season. In terms of Big Orange indignities, it doesn’t get much bigger or oranger.

Then, after a National Signing Day that didn’t produce as much buzz as the ones earlier in Jones’s tenure, Jones explained the lack of five-star players this way:  “Everyone gets into the whole two-star, three-star, four-star, five-star thing,” Jones told a crowd in Nashville according to Wes Rucker of 247Sports.com. The only five-star that we even concern ourselves with is a five-star heart. We want five-star hearts and five-star competitors.”

If a day comes soon when Jones isn’t Tennessee’s coach anymore, “I don’t view it as a disappointment” will be transcribed right alongside “champions of life” and “five-star hearts” as reasons this union didn’t last. Tennessee’s fans—and their most important boosters, for that matter—want their coach to feel the same way they feel. And here’s the strangest part. Jones is disappointed about the way last year went. He’d rather have an East championship than a Life championship. He’d rather sign a five-star football player than a five-star heart.

He just won’t say it when anyone might hear it.

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On the record, Jones seems deathly afraid of admitting what any person would feel in his situation. Last November, after Florida wrapped the East title and he got the question about championships, all he had to say was something like this: “How does it feel? It stinks. These players and these coaches have busted their humps to lift this program out of a pretty dark place, and we fell short.” 

Off the record, Jones is an engaging guy. He’s an excellent motivator. One conversation with no microphone or camera explains why he’s such an effective recruiter. It explains how he could sell so many talented players on a program that—when he inherited it—had bottomed out. A few years ago, Tennessee coaches had to apologize to NFL scouts and coaches who came to Tennessee’s pro day because the Vols didn’t have the talent to justify the scouts’ airfare. No one apologized at this year’s pro day, though. But Jones refuses to show this side of himself to the public, and that choice could ultimately cost him.

Bryan Lynn, AP

In his first three seasons, Jones did exactly what Tennessee paid him to do. He took a program that Derek Dooley had run aground and restocked it quickly. “Brick by brick”—the preferred cliche of those early years—rang true. And by this time last year, the Vols had a foundation and a solid structure. Couple that with a coaching change at Georgia and an inept offense at Florida, and the window was wide open. But the Vols didn’t climb through.

That’s perfectly understandable. An East championship in year four would have seemed fairly incredible to those who saw the roster Jones inherited in 2013. Things happen. In the case, of the 2016 Vols, those things included a rash of defensive injuries and an inexplicably bad game (South Carolina) by a usually reliable player (quarterback Josh Dobbs). And had Jones responded to those events genuinely, Tennessee fans might have understood. Yes, Vols fans can have outrageous expectations, but they’re also quite football savvy. They knew the difficulty of the task handed to Jones. They watched the Dooley years unfold.

If Jones wins big this season, he’s fine. If Jones has the Vols competing for the East title in November, he’s also probably fine. But if Tennessee stumbles, that’s when a new athletic director and a new chancellor might have to evaluate the pros and cons of Jones. Coaches who win a ton or lose a ton don’t have to worry about public perception. It’s the ones who live in the middle—where Jones is now—who do.

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What Jones fails to understand is that those fans just want to know he feels the way they feel. They’re disappointed about last season. They would rather have an East championship than a Life championship. They would rather their team sign five-star players instead of five-star hearts. If he were willing to show them he feels the same way—except more passionately, because this is his livelihood we’re talking about—then they might be more understanding if the rebuild takes a little longer than expected.

But if Jones keeps going in front of microphones and denying the most basic of human emotions, he’ll engender no empathy among the people whose money pays his salary. And he’ll probably get no sympathy from the people who may have to decide whether he remains Tennessee’s coach.

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