June 11, 2013

Jones turns Vols into a four letter word: Cool

Frank Wycheck often confounded opposing defenses with his great athleticism as a Pro Bowl tight end with the Tennessee Titans. Last week in my regular radio slot on his show, "The Wake Up Zone" on Nashville's "104.5 the Zone," Wycheck stumped me with a question.

Wycheck simply asked me what everyone's reaction continues to be to Vol head coach Butch Jones.

I found myself fumbling for words to paint the proper picture to an easy question. The reality is that I was looking for one word.

COOL. That's it.

Seems too simple, but I think it's dead-on. Cool. After years of being out-of-date and tired and boring, the Vols are now cool again.

Jones has made the Big Orange cool in just six months, in 15 spring practices and without coaching a game. He's made the Vols cool. And the amazing thing is that Jones is not just making the football program that way.

He's making the entire University of Tennessee cool. And that's the biggest result of the Butch Jones tent revival that started on December 7, 2012.

Just look at last week.

On Monday and Tuesday, Jones hosted some 200-plus campers, ages kindergarten through eighth grade. My son and a buddy took part in Jones' camp. Jones was visible both days interacting with the kids, and his coaching staff was with the kids from the time camp started on Monday at 10 a.m. until it ended at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. My son and his friend left Tuesday with smiles and high-fives from various coaches such as offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who personally invited kids back and thanked them for coming. The same can be said of all the assistant coaches, all of whom left Neyland Stadium long after the kids were done. It was real effort by the Tennessee staff and it paid off immediately. Those coaches likely made those kids Tennessee fans for life.

For the young kids, who have never seen Tennessee have success, Jones made the orange and white cool.

Effort. Hard work. Understanding marketing and public relations. And sometimes, just doing the right thing.

Case in point: on Wednesday, Jones, his staff and several players all greeted the softball team on their return from the College World Series. Jones wasn't the only coach there. Cuonzo Martin and Dave Serrano were there. Other coaches tweeted messages of congratulations. Martin texted co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly a good luck message before the championship series started on Monday. But it's Jones who set the tone. It was Jones who attended the Super Regional in Knoxville against Alabama. It was Jones who asked the Weeklys if he could address the team.

It's Jones who started and consistently tweets with the hash-tag #onetennessee.

Building family within UTAD. Helping to build a brand. Building relationships across the sports. Understanding that it is going to take everyone to get this fixed. Giving the entire university community a sense of oneness.

The Vols have been positioned atop the football recruiting rankings despite the fact that they haven't played a game under Jones. How? By making Tennessee cool. It's his creativity in how he recruits through video, through mailings, tweets, and tireless work from Jones and his staff. It's things like brick-by-brick and it's those committed to the class of 2014 that help Jones make the Vols cool.

At the University of Tennessee, the head football coach is the catalyst. He's the most important piece to the financial puzzle because he engineers the sport that drives the financial train, as more than one UT official has noted across the past 24 months. It's why Jones hosted a facility breakfast back in the spring. It's why Jones has had dinners with former players. It's why Jones visits with and is around other coaches in the department.

He's also the catalyst to the mindset and mentality throughout the athletic department and throughout the University.

Don't sell the entire University of Tennessee thing short, either.

After receiving over 14,000 applications, Tennessee will enroll 4,300 freshman this fall. This freshman class will arrive with an average GPA of 3.78 and an average ACT score of 27. Forty percent of this freshman class had a high school GPA of 4.0 or better.

These are all record numbers for a UT freshman class. Certainly, the Hope scholarship's allure has been the huge catalyst in keeping Tennessee's best students in-state. But don't sell Tennessee football short as part of the student recruiting equation.

A friend related to me his experience as a parent at his child's recent UT orientation session. He was stunned at how much Tennessee football was a topic and a selling point over the two days that he spent on campus. Not that it was the No. 1 topic or that it was overdone over academics, not at all. But it just drove home to him how much Tennessee football is part of the culture, the mystique and the excitement of being a Tennessee Volunteer as a student.

And the students' No. 1 UT orientation experience while on his child's visit, according to the friend? Lunch in Neyland Stadium. My friend claimed that there so much positive talk about Butch Jones among parents and students, it left him wondering how much Tennessee's potential football revival played a factor in the final decision of some of these students. Whatever the answer to that might be, Butch Jones is a cool name among incoming UT students.

Dave Hart finds it hard to contain his enthusiasm about the overall reaction to Jones.

Since his arrival as Tennessee's athletics director, Hart has openly talked about the need to get football healthy. It's still a ways from being there. But in addition to getting football healthy, Hart has talked about everyone in the Vol Nation rowing in the right direction. In other words, the Vols need to be cool in the eyes of everyone.

Right now no one is cooler than Butch Jones. And all the Vols said...

Amen.

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