Butch Jones Paid a Steep Price for His Own Progress at Tennessee

Butch Jones led Tennessee back to respectability from its lowest point in a generation, then learned how quickly a coach could become the victim of his own success in Knoxville.
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As his Tennessee program stood at a crossroads, Butch Jones chose a word that looks far more prescient today than it did when he uttered this statement.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said in March 2015. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”

Caretaker. It’s such an interesting word. Jones used it out of respect because Tennessee’s program really belongs to Gen. Robert Neyland and Johnny Majors and Condredge Holloway and Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson and all the other Volunteers who built it. But as it turned out, Jones had described himself correctly. He came along at a dark time and pulled the program out of a hole. But once he got Tennessee back on level ground, he couldn’t take the Vols any higher. 

If first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie—who fired Jones on Sunday following a 50–17 loss at Missouri—makes his first football hire as an AD a good one, that should be Jones’s legacy. He was a caretaker. That word has negative and positive connotations, and in the case of Jones at Tennessee, both are true. 

The week that Jones so aptly described himself, he and his staff had apologized to NFL coaches, executives and scouts who made the trip to Knoxville for Tennessee’s pro day. Two seasons removed from the end of the Derek Dooley era, the Vols didn’t have any outgoing players those people wanted to draft. But at a spring practice session the next day, Jones could look across the field and find future NFL players at multiple positions. Those were his players, the ones he had recruited to help bridge the talent gap Dooley’s recruiting had created. (Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in his final class in 2012. There are few more blatant acts of coaching malpractice.) The members of the class of 2014—when the typically up-and-down state of Tennessee produced a bumper crop and the Vols cleaned up—were coming of age and would be major contributors in ’15. Josh Dobbs, the quarterback Jones and his staff had flipped from Arizona State following their arrival in Knoxville from Cincinnati, was an established starter.

But with that surge in talent came the expectations Jones mentioned in the above quote. And though he claimed to want them, he never seemed comfortable with them during his tenure. Jones thought the Vols still needed more time. He had made “brick by brick” his mantra as he restocked the program, but he failed to understand that he had enough bricks and just needed to deploy them properly. The Vols had grown accustomed to winning big during the Fulmer era, but Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and the Dooley era had lowered the bar. The fan base was patient as Jones restored the roster, but once that fan base realized Jones had the talent to compete in the mediocre SEC East, it started expecting more. As the 2015 season loomed, Missouri was coming off two consecutive East titles. Georgia fans and boosters were growing increasingly frustrated with Mark Richt’s inability to dominate a division dying to be dominated. Florida had just fired Will Muschamp and replaced him with Jim McElwain. The time was right. 

Then came fourth-and-14 in Gainesville. The Vols gave up a 37-yard Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown and wound up losing 28–27. That stretched Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee to 11. The following week, still reeling from the loss to the Gators, the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. That crushed their chances to win the East, but it didn’t crush the fan base’s spirit. Tennessee hadn’t won big in a while. The players needed to learn how to win such games and deal with the emotional highs and lows of the season. When Tennessee won seven of its last eight and brought back a loaded roster, 2016 felt like the year.

And it started well enough. Tennessee whipped eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. After a terrible first half the two weeks later, Tennessee stormed back and roared to a 38–28 win that snapped the losing streak against Florida. The following week, the Vols won at Georgia on a Hail Mary. Everything was falling into place.

The next week, a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M gutted the Vols’ defense. The banged-up group wasn’t expected to beat Alabama the next week, but it was expected to compete. It did not, falling 49–10. Still, all Tennessee had to do to force a rematch in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide was hold serve against the worst teams in possibly the worst division in the Power 5. And after an open date to correct any lingering issues, Tennessee went out and lost to South Carolina.

That was the beginning of the end for Jones. He bristled at the criticism that came his way as Florida stumbled into a second consecutive SEC East title. And after the Gators clinched that title with a November win at LSU, Jones was asked about the seniors who would leave Tennessee without a title of any kind. This is how he responded.

The Championship of Life was a noble enough sentiment. Jones wanted to thank those seniors for enduring some tough times in the hope of creating a better future for the program. But because Jones was so reluctant to publicly express disappointment for any of the team’s failures, it came off as him being O.K. with the fact that the Vols didn’t win the East. It wasn’t O.K. with him, but his words didn’t convey that message. It got even worse that Saturday when a Tennessee team that would have gone to the Sugar Bowl with a win lost 45–34 to Vanderbilt.

It probably was over for Jones then, but he’d made too much progress given where Tennessee was when he arrived to be denied another chance. Unfortunately, a last-second loss to Florida on Sept. 16 started a slide that still hasn’t ended. Tennessee now has lost its last game against all 13 fellow SEC teams. The Volunteers look headed for an 0–8 conference record this season. Currie had hoped to wait until the season’s end to jettison Jones, but losing a local five-star recruit (Class of 2018 offensive lineman Cade Mays) and the apathetic performance at Missouri left Currie no choice.

Despite this season’s record, Tennessee is a far better job today than when Jones got it. Given what the Vols return, a solid hire by Currie should have Tennessee winning immediately. While Florida—which also has an opening—has easier access to good recruits and might have a higher ceiling long-term, Tennessee has better facilities and might be a quicker turnaround.

In 2012, coaches contacted about the job looked at Tennessee’s roster and blanched. Charlie Strong wanted to stay at Louisville another year. Mike Gundy was destined for even bigger things at Oklahoma State. This time around, more candidates will be interested because they’ll see a roster they can win with quickly.

That roster is there because of Jones. He didn’t finish the house, and the mounting construction delays necessitated a sale to another builder, but he brought in enough bricks to lay a solid foundation. Now it’s up to Currie to find the coach who will finish the job.

A Random Ranking

This week, I’ll be ranking my favorite cartoon organizations bent on world and/or intergalactic domination. I’m sticking to intellectual property that is best known for its television cartoon version, so no Star Wars, Marvel or DC here. Also, these must be organizations with a name and a defined organizational chart. Groups of enemies that never bothered incorporating—such as the creatures that fought the ThunderCats—are ineligible.

1. Cobra

2. The Decepticons

3. V.E.N.O.M

4. The Really Rottens

5. Hordak and the Evil Horde

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable in Starkville, but they survived. For the first time since the national title game, Jalen Hurts had to lead his team down the field for a score late in the fourth quarter. Just as he did in the national title game, Hurts came through. (Unfortunately for Alabama in that game in Tampa in January, so did Deshaun Watson on the ensuing possession.) The Iron Bowl doesn’t look like a guaranteed win for Alabama after the way Auburn played in its win against Georgia, but Hurts’s ability to escape the pocket and turn an opponent’s successful pass rush into a big gain will help tremendously if Auburn’s defensive front is as dominant as it was Saturday.

2. Miami

Notre Dame is a good team, and the Hurricanes crushed the Fighting Irish. The Miami team that barely squeezed by some average opponents seems to have shed its skin and emerged as a dominant group that looks capable of winning the ACC and making the playoff. Now a team unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of success must win two games it should win and then beat a team very accustomed to playing in high-stakes games (Clemson) in the ACC title game. 

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the way things are going, they might even be able to survive another loss and still make the playoff. If Oklahoma lost to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still won the Big 12 title game and then Ohio State beat Wisconsin to become a two-loss Big Ten champ, the Sooners would have to be in over the Buckeyes by virtue of their head-to-head win in Columbus. But if Oklahoma keeps playing the way it has the past few weeks, this won’t be an issue at all. The Sooners will just be playing for a higher seed.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers held an Iowa team that rolled up 487 yards against Ohio State the previous week to 66 yards. That’s not a total for a quarter or for a half. That’s all Iowa gained the entire game. Wisconsin still must get past Michigan, Minnesota and the Big Ten East winner (probably Ohio State), but if the Badgers keep playing that kind of defense and freshman back Jonathan Taylor keeps averaging around seven yards a carry, they can run the table.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s impossible to single out one Auburn offensive lineman for this week’s honor because the entire group routinely reset the line of scrimmage against Georgia. The Tigers were getting such a good push that some Kerryon Johnson runs looked like solid stops for the defense and wound up being five-yard gainers. So congratulations to Austin Golson, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James.

Three and Out

1. Tennessee made its move Sunday after an embarrassing loss at Missouri. Nebraska laid a similarly huge egg Saturday with a 54–21 loss at Minnesota but stood pat on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are keeping Mike Riley. It only means the end probably won’t come until after the season finale against Iowa on Black Friday.

The game didn’t end Riley’s tenure, but it did hand Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a bit of karmic justice. A few days after Diaco criticized the rugby tackling techniques used by former coordinator Mark Banker—and used by Washington, which tackles much better than Nebraska does—Diaco’s defense got shredded for 409 rushing yards (a 9.1-yard average) by the Gophers, who entered the game averaging only 3.8 yards a carry on the season.

Banker told the Omaha World-Herald that Diaco was just making excuses, and he was correct. Coaches like Diaco who insist that only their genius can save a unit or a program tend to get exposed. Diaco’s day came Saturday.

2. Two banners flew over the Rose Bowl as UCLA beat Arizona State on Saturday to even its record at 5–5. Both banners demanded the firing of Bruins coach Jim Mora.

UCLA players noticed the banners, and quarterback Josh Rosen was not pleased. “It’s just absurd,” Rosen told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s disrespectful, it’s disgusting. If you don’t think Coach Mora should be our coach, go talk to our AD yourself. Don’t publicly do something stupid that costs an unnecessary amount of money. That’s ridiculous. We love our coach. We all would do anything for him and know he would do anything for us.”

3. When the season began, Austin Peay hadn’t won a game since October 2014. After Saturday’s 31–24 comeback win against Eastern Kentucky, coach Will Healy and the Governors are now 7–4 and have a shot to make the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday against Eastern Illinois.

For Your Ears

On this episode of the Place At The Table podcast, SI’s own Bruce Feldman joins me to discuss the firing of Butch Jones and the playoff picture after a wild weekend.

What’s Eating Andy?

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know I’m terrible at picking games. But my predictions of wins for Georgia and Notre Dame on Saturday were particularly egregious. Fortunately, this could be a good thing for Tennessee fans angry at the state of their program. I’ve been adamant that Jon Gruden would not take a lower (or equal) paying job that requires him to talk to 17-year-olds eight hours a day in between coaching a football team. Given that I’ve been wrong about everything else, maybe I’ll be wrong about the GRUMORS, too.

What’s Andy Eating?

I drank my first bourbon barrel-aged beer sometime in 2015 for two reasons.

• I like bourbon.

• I like beer.

That beer was Boulevard Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. (Which now is available in four-bottle packs instead of only wine bottle-sized bombers.) The aging process takes an already great beer (The Sixth Glass, a Belgian Quadrupel) and adds a rich, complex sweetness. It also jacks up the alcohol contend a tad. Bourbon Barrel quad remains my favorite beer to this day, but I bet I’d have a new favorite by now if I lived in Seattle. Brother Barrel would give me plenty of choices.

The proprietors of Elliott Bay Brewery love the bourbon barrel-aged stuff even more than I do. As they watched the progress of the craft beer business and plotted their next move, they reasoned that barrel-aged and sour beers seemed like the next big thing. So they began stashing beer in barrels beneath their building in the Lake City neighborhood, and they waited. Some beers stayed in those barrels for a year. Some stayed for 18 months. This past spring, once enough of the beers had finished the aging process, they opened Brother Barrel next door. Now, thirsty and hungry patrons can swing by and sample a rotating selection of the aged stuff while nibbling on house-made charcuterie.


When I visited, my favorite was the barleywine aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel. It packed a punch (9.9% alcohol), but it drank like dessert as the faint flavor of bourbon paired with caramel, vanilla and chocolate notes. The most interesting entry was Brewer’s Blend No. 4, which mixed a previous blend with a porter, a stout and an imperial stout. That mixture was then aged in a bourbon barrel, and it came out with a tart cherry kick followed by a deep, sweet finish.

The gin barrel–aged Belgian golden took me out of my bourbon barrel comfort zone, but I’m glad I left. A blend of two saisons and a tripel, this one came out of the barrel as the hairiest-chested fruity beer ever concocted.

Between sips, I ate slices of salami and prosciutto and hunks of bread dipped in olive oil. It was neither the fanciest nor the most decadent meal, but the small plates are on the menu to help prepare the palate for the next wave of barrel-aged goodness.

If you visit now, you might not encounter the same beers I did. That’s part of the fun at Brother Barrel. When one barrel gets emptied, another takes its place. I only wish I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, because I’d cherish a taste from every one.