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May 9, 2013
GERMANTOWN --- This was supposed to be Butch Jones' first road test as Tennessee's head coach.
This hamlet of Memphis, where Tiger blue and not 'Pantone Matching System 151' purports to be the color of choice, doesn't have a reputation as being overly Tennessee friendly in recent years. Denizens of the Bluff City felt too overlooked; top recruits picked other schools or didn't pan out in that distinctive orange.
So Jones could've faced the gauntlet here Thursday evening. The event a sell-out, some 400 folks packing into the Germantown Great Hall and Conference Center, and Jones making his Big Orange Caravan debut.
No sweat. Turns out, there was a waiting list since 400 tickets weren't enough. Some folks, like Don Oliver, rolled the orange dice and took a risk.
"I've been involved with the UT group here in Shelby County for a number of years now. We've got over 400 people here (Thursday night), and of course there was a waiting list to get in. My son and I were not able to register early, so we got here at 5 o'clock trying to get some of the early tickets that were available. Lot of energy here, and it's great to see the coaches and people out here," Oliver said. "Pat Summitt, when she would show up, when I was on the board at the time, we would sell out early and people were scrambling for tickets at the last minute. It's great to see it here (Thursday). Oh yeah [it had been a few years]."
It actually wasn't that long since Jones was in Memphis. Tennessee's fifth head coach since 2008 already had logged multiple stops on the banks of the Mississippi River prior to Thursday night's event; moreover, Jones had instructed his coaches to saturate the area in recruiting in his previous stop at Cincinnati.
"Memphis is very big to us. We are the state institution," said Jones, who donned a championship ring from Cincinnati and told his wife his next one would be adorned with a 'Power T.' "I understand the great football that's played here. The great high school coaching that goes on here. Our staff has recruited this area for a number of years now.
"I think it's very important that we're visible, especially here in Memphis. And Memphis means so much to us. It's the visibility and it's the access. We have a lot of great things going on at the University of Tennessee. It's no secret we have a lot of momentum, we have a lot of energy and we have a lot of excitement surrounding our football program right now. I think it can be felt not only throughout the great state of Tennessee but throughout the course of the country. To be able to come here and share that vision and add to that excitement, looking forward to that."
Former Vols great Stanley Morgan was among those who turned out for Jones' inaugural Caravan stop. Something of a founding father in Tennessee's "Wide Receiver U." tradition, Morgan had already met Jones on a previous Memphis visit.
No matter. Morgan's buying into Jones' "Rise to the Top" mantra.
"I think he brings a good energy, something that I think we've been missing. I had a chance to meet him when he came down in March, when they first came down to Memphis, and I was impressed. I am impressed with him. He's starting to put the program on the right track," Morgan said. "It's just one of those that we have to wait and see, but I'm impressed with his credentials and we'll see what's going to happen. But right now I'm hooked on him. I'm looking for good things to come out of him."
Morgan said the Volunteers Nation has needed something to rally behind after several lean years.
"With all of the alumni [it's been tough]. You know what it was when we were there. You know what it meant to put that orange and white uniform on," Morgan explained, "and to see them go through the changes they're going through right now, it hurts. Because now we can't go out and brag, and you can't talk about your team. But I'm looking forward to that day when we get that back, and I think we're headed in the right direction right now."
Count athletics czar Dave Hart, an old school, show-me-first type, among the swelling ranks of 'Butch Believers.'
"First and foremost, I think Butch has done a terrific job. He's a very genuine person. And I know that when you first say that, people ask if that's an overstatement. It's really not an overstatement," Hart said. "So I think his level of energy is contagious, and he's had a lot to do with the renewal of energy. I'm excited. I'm genuinely excited. We're getting traction now on some key initiatives. The chancellor has been great. Jimmy (Cheek) understands how important it is for us to get football healthy, and he's jumped right in there in assisting that venture.
"I'm excited about our direction. I've been here 19 months, and I can feel the difference. I think it's tangible, and I think Butch Jones is driving that ship."
On this night, Jones showed he can navigate in what previously had been some of the Tennessee program's most troubled waters.