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August 14, 2013There were T-shirts to mark the occasion, a day that Tennessee billed as "Championship Wednesday" on its football practice field.
A program that has heard from a former head of the Secret Service, a Navy S.E.A.L., Peyton Manning and an ultra-marathon runner since Butch Jones was hired eight months ago ratcheted up the cool factor Wednesday morning at Volunteers practice.
That's where Jones brought out a champion from the sports world to address his football team: Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
"I see it as bragging rights you know, like my coach is cooler than your coach," said Vols junior wideout Devrin Young. "That's how I see it.
Added redshirt freshman linebacker Kenny Bynum, "It was crazy. Because I've never seen someone famous like that, and he won two back-to-back (NBA) titles. It was pretty exciting to see him here because Coach Jones has that connection."
After celebrating each of the Heat's past two NBA Championships with Spoelstra, Jones made clear bringing Spoelstra around his football team was an easy decision as the Vols seek to rebound from three-straight losing seasons and the transition that brought Jones to Rocky Top by way of Cincinnati on Dec. 7, 2012.
"Well I think first of all, any time you can bring an individual like Erik Spoelstra, the stature that he brings, to come in and spend an entire day with your football program means everything. First-class individual. High character. Loves college football, and he's a winner. He's won back-to-back NBA world championships. He's going to have a great message for our team," said Jones, who keeps a signed Miami Heat basketball and framed photo with Spoelstra in his posh Knoxville office. "He's a great friend, and I'm really indebted. He doesn't have much time off. For him to come here, to come to Knoxville and spend an entire day with our football program means a lot."
Though Spoelstra didn't address Knoxville media, Jones and Vols players said the message the Heat coach would impart was expected to focus on the championship process.
"He's just going to help teach us how to win and how to get stronger as a team," Tennessee redshirt freshman wide receiver Jason Croom said. "I mean it's nice to have some winners in here because that's what's about to go around, that's what's about to go down here. Having Spoelstra here today is one of the examples."
Tennessee is coming off a 5-7 season in which it fired head coach Derek Dooley and hired Jones as the program's fourth different head coach since 2008. The Vols also have posted losing seasons in four of the past five years, but Jones drew a parallel to the rebuilding process that the Miami Heat endured early in Spoelstra's tenure as a similarity to what Jones has confronted at Tennessee.
"There's so many similarities, and I think the building of the Miami Heat ... Everyone remembers right now, everyone remembers the last two years. But I think a lot of people forget the building process that went through that," Jones said. "Prior to his first year at the Miami Heat, they won 15 games. So he's going to talk about the building process, building it brick-by-brick and building that culture, building that structure that it takes to be successful like they have in Miami."
Senior defensive tackle Dan McCullers, who signed with the Vols in 2012 out of Georgia Military College, said having a coach of Spoelstra's ilk around the program would likely resonate with recruits.
"It would catch recruits' attention because he's a big-time coach in the NBA. And he hangs with Butch, so that's a big recruiting key. I guess we're going to run with it," McCullers said. "He's won championships, coaches LeBron (James), coaches Dwyane Wade. It's kind of cool to see him and learn from him."
Jones, who often utilizes a basketball drill --- the three-man weave --- to stress ball security to his players on the practice field, maintained that bringing in Spoelstra and the myriad other guest speakers was part of his program emphasis on cultivating players on and off the field.
"I think everything in our football program that we talk about is personal growth and development," Jones said. "Not only in reaching your full potential as a football player but off the field as well. ... This is part of our Vol For Life program as well. We want as many successful people to come in and be able to have an impact on our players. That's part of being Tennessee, is the ability to bring people who are successful like Erik Spoelstra to campus that want to come, that want to be part of Tennessee football. It's very exciting and I think it's a great illustration on moving forward of what we have here at Tennessee."