During spring practice, Butch Jones, the first-year football coach at the University of Cincinnati, spotted a coed running the stadium steps wearing a T-shirt bearing another school's logo. He dispatched a team manager to escort the young lady to the university bookstore, where she could buy a Cincinnati shirt, or feel free not to run the stadium steps again.
Jones winces at the memory. "I've heard about that from some people,'' he said. "But it got them talking about University of Cincinnati football.''
Jones does corny things. High school things, things made for a cynic's laughter. He speaks endlessly of togetherness. He's big on Lists. Jones' slogans pile up like campaign posters in a convention hall:
Hold The Rope.
Represent The C.
Jones spent a week gorging at the Rick Pitino-Pat Riley Success Buffet and walked away looking for some Tony Robbins for dessert.
Jones is The Guy Replacing The Guy. For three years, Brian Kelly charmed snakes and everyone else at Cincinnati. He led the Bearcats to consecutive BCS bowls and a 12-0 regular season in 2009. He made college football important in a pro football town, with a blend of blarney, charm and wide-open offense no one in the city had ever seen. Until Kelly, Cincinnati football meant Friday night lights and the Bengals. Kelly changed all that. Kelly was "a tsunami,'' in the words of university athletic director Mike Thomas.
A tough act to top.
Jones is Kelly without the sheen. Kelly was charming in a political way. He was a CEO. Jones is a Football Guy. Most Football Guys are slightly insane. And I mean that in the nicest of ways. "Total immersion in the things he believes in,'' was how Cincinnati assistant coach Kerry Coombs described Jones.
Jones put together something he calls The Champions Manual. It's thicker than a box of playbooks. You'd need a week on Aruba to read it all: The 10 Keys to Winning. The Five Levels of Commitment. "Things that don't take talent to do well,'' Jones explained.
The only TV he has time to watch is sports. His favorite shows? College Football Live, Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter. One night, Jones happened upon an ESPN documentary detailing the rise of football at the University of Miami. There was Hurricanes' running back Alonzo Highsmith, a Miami guy, talking about local players sticking around and winning a championship in their hometown.
Not long after, Jones had Bearcats linebacker and Cincinnati native J.K. Schaffer in front of a camera, suggesting the same could be done at UC. Jones spliced Schaffer's comments with Highsmith's and created a DVD. "Do you want to see it?'' he asks a visitor. "Do you have the time?''
Jones has a digital recorder on his night stand, so when he awakens at 3 a.m. with an idea, which is every night, he can speak it into the machine. He says his wife doesn't mind. She has ideas, too. "She does the same thing,'' he said.
Jones held a "Football Family Barbecue'' recently, where he dispensed 175 "football family'' T-shirts, "because this is a family and I want that understood.'' He held something he called Sticker Night. "A bleed session,'' Jones called it.
Players stood in front of the team and served up their life stories. Afterward, each was handed five stickers and told to write two "positive'' traits of a coach or teammate. The stickers later were affixed to players' lockers, for when each needed a morale boost.
"Coaches are passionate about different things,'' Jones said. "They may be passionate about self promotion. I'm passionate about the program.''
A cynic could yawn for hours.
But here's the thing, and it is the only thing:
Jones believes it all. More importantly, those who work for him believe it. All the hokey sayings, the lists, the winner's manual -- it's no act. Jones is as earnest as Kelly was slick. He's as hands-on as Kelly was imperial. Kelly would play golf during the preseason. Jones wouldn't know a 9-iron if Ben Hogan handed it to him. "Two very capable men, doing the same job two very different ways,'' said Coombs, who worked for Kelly and remains with Jones.
An impression hovered over the program last season that Kelly was in it for Kelly. Players who were privately peeved at their coach's credit-taking during the season became openly contemptuous after he declared he was leaving for South Bend. Jones brings an entirely different vibe. Cincinnati believes it has earned its bona fides in the last three years; what it needs now is someone who intends to stay awhile and keep the flame.
Said Thomas, the athletic director, "You look at the checklist of what we needed at the time'' Kelly was hired. "Exciting football, wide-open offense. A charismatic presence in the community, to get people to the games. We don't want to let up on that accelerator, but Butch is coming in at a different time. We're not going from A to Z now. We're on third base.''
Jones is taking over a two-time defending Big East champion that didn't lose last season until January, and yet the Bearcats are considered no better than third best in the Big East. Part of that is that Kelly is now at Notre Dame. Jones succeeded Kelly at Central Michigan, where he got the Chippewas as high as 23rd nationally. His offense will look a lot like Kelly's did, spread out and manic-paced. Defensively, the Bearcats will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3. In the corner office, nothing will be the same.
At his first team meeting, Jones wrote his cell phone number on the blackboard. On a plane trip last week to the ESPN compound in Connecticut, Jones took calls from players excited to tell him about their academic progress during the summer quarter. He said he has received numerous text messages from former CMU players as practice opened, wishing him luck.
"Lots of coaches talk about family,'' Jones said. "We live it every day. As a team, we define the definition of family.''
"I gotta read this to you,'' Jones said. He is up, out of his desk chair, prowling the office, looking for something. "Do you have the time? If I'm boring you, tell me.''
He finds a stapled sheaf of paper. It's an article written by a motivational guy named John Maxwell: The Law of the Price Tag. "You'll love this,'' Jones said. He loves it. Clearly.
"If everyone doesn't pay the price to win, they will pay the price of losing.''
And so on. The voice recorder awaits on the nightstand. It's never lonely.