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January 17, 2013It wouldn't have been anywhere too elaborate; nothing too fancy. More greasy spoon than silver spoon in Saugatuck, Mich., a tourist hamlet with a population around 1,000 where Butch Jones grew up and commanded his first job washing dishes at a local restaurant.
The son of a police chief father and hospital administrator mother, Jones was early instilled with a blue-collar work ethic --- no matter the life lessons, there is no grandeur associated with washing dishes --- that has adopted an orange hue since he was tabbed last month at Tennessee's 24th head football coach.
Jones recalls often his humble first job, and he carries with him today the lessons from it.
"Not quitting. There were a number of days where it got hard. It was 120 degree in the kitchen. It was 5:30 in the morning and I didn't want to go," said Jones, always on the move but allowing here for a slight pause. "But I wasn't going to be somebody who quit. I had too much pride to do that. I think the overall work ethic. I think the perseverance. The resiliency that you have to have to be successful."
Chris Spognardi, Jones' top assistant and witness to the coach's rise to prominence since Jones first helmed the Central Michigan program, has seen that drive firsthand and also knows the roots of Jones' humble beginnings.
"Every day he goes to work, or has the ability to go to work, it's a personal deal but he doesn't want to be outworked. The thing that drives him the most is failure," said Spognardi, his narrative similarly one of perseverance from student worker to coach's de facto chief of staff. "His work ethic starts with his drive to not fail. He'll tell anybody who will listen he will not be outworked at all.
"Every single day he's going to outwork the next guy. He doesn't want to let his nine assistants down, the numerous support staff. He knows he's the leader of a lot of, not just people but families. I think that's one thing you'll find from him more than anybody. When we talk about our families and all that, he believes and lives it every single day. That's something you don't find in this business too often. It's something that started for him back when started working at 14."
There may not be physical dishes for Jones to wash in the Volunteers' kitchen, but much is lacking from Tennessee's cupboard. It is a program that has suffered more losing seasons in the past five years --- four --- than it did in the previous quarter century.
So it is necessary for Jones to accept this job one day and that same night be on the road recruiting.
To mend relationships with disconnected former lettermen, for myriad reasons, both in Knoxville and beyond.
To set staff meetings for 8 a.m. and be on campus 75 minutes early.
To stitch together a patchwork recruiting class, one that Jones believes can be a springboard for 2014.
All of these items and more constitute a portion of Jones' daily workload. And oh yeah, the 2011 Big East Coach of the Year also still pens handwritten letters to recruits and supporters of the Tennessee program, lest someone not see the personal touch nor Jones allow himself some reprieve from days when his hand was the only one available to proffer such recruiting tools.
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling, whom Jones tabbed as his assistant head coach at UT and who twice has rejoined Jones' staff after notching bowl wins in an interim post, has more than 30 years' experience across five decades in college football.
Stripling, too, marvels at Jones' approach because Stripling's experiences allow him to know Jones' example is what will shape the program.
"It's unbelievable. Coach Jones talks about the word passion, that's a huge word in his vocabulary to his football team and to his staff. And you can't talk about that word unless you have it. It's obvious. We went into football meetings (last Thursday morning) and we had been here late the night before, and it was 'Hey, we've got to have this. We've got to get this done.' There's great passion in him, and that reflects on the work ethic," Stripling said. "To really put in the time that's necessary, you've got to love it and it's obvious that he does. He has that passion, and he's a very A.T.D. --- attention to detail-oriented coach. So he keeps everybody on their toes, but he's got passion, energy. And his work ethic is unbelievable."
It also, Stripling said, creates a priceless example.
"It's a leadership role and I tell everybody in recruiting that it's a pyramid and the head coach is at the top of that pyramid," Stripling explained. "If the head coach is at the top of that pyramid, the program is going to reflect the coach and there's no question about his leadership and his style and his work ethic and his energy and it's contagious. And that's what's leading the way."
Jones won't get a chance to test himself as an SEC coach against SEC opposition for another nine months. However, Spognardi sees in Jones an appreciation for that challenge that daily drives Tennessee's fifth head coach since '08.
"Everybody wants to say 'He's never been in the SEC, doesn't have the experience,' but he has multiple experiences outside of that at different levels where you don't have the same resources and where work ethic will take on more of a higher end than when you have all the resources at your disposal," Spognardi said. "When you're given everything to start with, you don't learn the grass roots. If you start at the top then at the end of the day, you don't know how to do the small things to get to the top.
"Coach started as an equipment guy with the (NFL's Tampa Bay) Bucs, then he was a G.A., an offensive coordinator at a lower level, assistant at the D-1 level, then a coordinator and now a head coach at three different levels, really at the D-1 level. From MAC to smaller BCS to the SEC. His work ethic drives him every day. One quote you'll hear a lot from him, he's got three sons and a wife at home, and when he goes home and his sons are going to get milk out of the refrigerator, they don't know how it got there just that it's there. They don't know the milk gets there because of this, because of the work. And that's a key point for him, it's all about family. And the end of the day, it's a program built on family and his work ethic."
The building at Tennessee for Jones has only just begun, and while the coach momentarily allows himself to consider his beginnings, it doesn't last. There is, of course, more work to be done.
"I'm proud in terms of my career of being a college football coach because I started off as a volunteer then as a graduate assistant. Heck when I was Wilkes University I was also the intramural director and the men's tennis coach. I just believe in working yourself up," Jones said. "Because when you get to a place like the University of Tennessee, you really, really never take anything for granted. There is never a day where you take something for granted.
"I'm proud to be here. But I also understand the work ethic that it's going to take on a day to day basis and I relish that."