July 18, 2013

Jones rings up players' support

HOOVER, Ala. --- Sudden change, it seems, was as easy as simply using a cell phone within the University of Tennessee football program.

Jacques Smith, Tennessee's senior defensive end, remembers the first time new head coach Butch Jones reached out to him.

Celebrating his 21st birthday on New Year's Eve, Smith recalls waking up in the early-morning hours on the West Coast to find his phone ringing.

"Coach called me on my 21st birthday, and I was in California," Smith says. "It was like 8 o'clock back home so like 5 o'clock in the morning out there, and I answer my phone and he says, 'Jacques, this is coach Jones. How you doing?' I was like, 'Hey, Coach.' I couldn't believe he was calling me."

Ja'Wuan James owns a similar early-Butch story but shares a more recent one.

"It can be just passing him in the complex or the whole plane ride here (to SEC Media Days). It's just like cool and you feel comfortable around him," explains James, owner of 37 starts in 37 career games. "Just like the other night, Coach just texted me to say 'What's up? How you doing?'. That was weird for us. Stuff like that. Just seeing him down in Miami at the (NBA Finals) game. That was pretty funny. He text me and was sending me pictures from the Heat game."

It is a different Tennessee, again, preparing for a new season replete with different challenges. And games aren't won in front of 1,200 media members inside a stuffy-but-air-conditioned Magic City hotel for the Southeastern Conference's ostentatious pre-season kickoff event.

Feeling connected, however, isn't something these players can afford to take for granted. Smith considers Jones his third Volunteers head coach, having committed to Lane Kiffin, contemplated leaving when Kiffin left and then enduring three-straight losing seasons under Derek Dooley.

Ditto for James. So enter Lyle Allen "Butch" Jones Jr.. He of the open invitation to his players' parents, as well as those of recruits, to phone at all times. He of the constant cell phone connectivity.

Jones needs unlimited unlimited plans.

"I believe in constant communication with your players, and they have to know how much you truly care about them outside the game of football," Jones says, moments before posing for pictures and chatting up new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. So every free moment I get, I'll text some of our players just to check on them and let them know that I'm thinking about them."

Players continue to take notice. James hails from an Atlanta suburb but embarks on a senior season still wearing orange in large part because of his early, first-month chats with Jones.

Smith and fellow media day attendee Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson are Tennessee natives, former Volunteer State standouts seeking what likely is one final season of redemption and restoration.

"He's very personable. He's always trying to build a person relationship with his players," Richardson, a projected first-round NFL Draft pick and James' bookend tackle, explains of Jones. "And when you have a coach like that, it's going to make you want to run through walls for him."

For two more weeks, Jones leans largely on strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson to erect those walls, be they whitewater rafting trips, grueling physical challenges and myriad mental ploys.

When Jones regains full control and ushers in his first fall camp on Rocky Top August 1, the two-time conference coach of the year in his previous stops plans more unpredictable teaching points. Fostering leadership remains the epicenter of Jones' various machinations.

"You always have to create opportunities for individuals to step up and lead. It's easy to lead when things are going well. You find out who your true leaders are in chaotic situations and crisis situations," Jones says. "You look at the game of life and the game of football, it's no different. It's how individuals react to sudden change and how they respond. So part of the leadership development is trying to create opportunities for you players to step up and take on a leadership role and to give them responsibilities to see if they can do it or not."

Players can expect the unexpected. Then, expect something else.

"We'll change it around. I'm not a creature of habit," says the coach. "I don't think the game of football has anything to do with being creatures of habit. It's being able to answer sudden change. I do believe in a routine and a style, but I don't like being creatures of habit.

"So we'll change things around. I think you're always constantly changing your practice schedule around. We don't want them just to go to work. Whatever is there, they have to answer the challenge."

Sometimes, that means just answering the phone.

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