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June 13, 2013

Keeping up with the Joneses

Way back in December, when the University of Tennessee's coaching search matched its frantic, frenzied peak with that of the quest of myriad big-time college programs that sought to make Butch Jones their redeemer, had the Jones family been staring at a Scrabble board, they would have spelled unanimous 'T-E-N-N-E-S-S-E-E.'

Nothing else was a given. And Jones, who across six-plus months on Rocky Top has worked to offer the sort of program transparency that renders NSA leakers unnecessary, set forth a similar clarity with his family. His sons, particularly 16-year-old Alex and 12-year-old Adam, were engaged in the search process.


"The whole thing went from debating to no-brainer." - Barb Jones, on the family's reaction last December to the opportunity at Tennessee



Friends, teachers and others with whom the family had daily contact wouldn't have had it much any other way.

"When the Tennessee thing came about, and again it happened so fast, you talk about an emotional roller coaster and you go back and forth and you decide you're staying and you tell your boss (Whit Babcock) you're staying. And he's walking into my house asking, 'What about Tennessee?' We were very close, lived down the street from each other. I hadn't talked to Tennessee and to Dave Hart's credit, he had called to ask Whit permission to speak to me or to tell him he was going to speak to me prior to have any conversation with me. So I had zero contact with Tennessee. So he asks me 'Well what about Tennessee?' and I said, 'There's nothing with Tennessee.' And he said, 'You mean you haven't talked to them?' and I said, 'No, I haven't.' And he said, 'Dave Hart just called me.'

"But when the Tennessee job came open, obviously it was unanimous in the Jones house. Barb was really excited, the kids were really excited."

Alex, with smartphone in tow, looked a bit prophetic. He still has pictures from Jones and the Bearcats' 2011 trip to Tennessee. Pictures of Neyland Stadium. Thompson-Boling Arena. Pratt Pavilion.

"The whole demeanor went from debating to a no-brainer," Barb Jones said. "We came here two years prior. He does have those photos; I just saw them the other day. He went into the practice facility. It's really bizarre that way."

Yet the tale of how the Joneses arrived on Rocky Top hardly is bizarre; rather it's a reflection of a hard-working, tight-knit family headed by a coach who has steadily climbed from part-time NFL equipment man to graduate assistant to a multi-time conference coach of the year now atop a program that Jones deems his "dream job."

COLLEGE ROMANCE

A former high school basketball and softball standout whose father had coached her in youth leagues, Barb used to wait around for Lyle Allen Jones Jr. outside a Ferris State classroom.

"We had a class in the same building. And he would often wear his varsity jacket that said 'Lyle' on it," Barb recalled. "We'd pass each other, or sometimes I'd hang around if he was running late."

Using football memories for a scrapbook and timeline, Butch Jones can recall their first date, when he asked Barb to marry him --- June 21, 1990 --- and where that first date took place and which restaurant --- Mountain Jack's, Barb's favorite --- served as the backdrop for what he said wasn't a creative marriage proposal.

"We would pass each other walking to class. We actually met right when school was getting out. Then summer passed and we saw each other at the start of school and, quick, started dating. I'll never forget," Jones said. "It was September, and I was working with the Buccaneers. We had a date, first date, and then I had to leave after the Ferris game because we were opening up in Green Bay, Wisc., the next day."

The couple's relationship would unfold in much the way Jones' coaching career has tracked: the early stages weren't marked by convenience, but every step has been a foundational piece.

EARLY COACHING YEARS

Butch lettered two years at Ferris State, years that coincided with his thankless internship with the Buccaneers. He accepted a graduate assistant post at Rutgers and got engaged at virtually the same time.

The distance? Roughly 800 miles. The pay? A couple thousand bucks, maybe. The visits? As often as both could manage. Only once, however, did that come via Greyhound, Barb said.

"I did, I took a bus. I left at 11 o'clock at night from Detroit and got into Newark, N.J., at 11 the next morning. I did it once, and I was scared. So scared," she said. "My dad said you're never doing that again."

She did, however, give up a prestigious summer internship on Marco Island in order to accept an internship in East Brunswick, N.J. There, Barb and Butch Jones broke down game film together, since she knew no one else and Jones was the Scarlet Knights' low man on the coaching tree.

But the experiences there helped condition Barb for the life of a coach's wife; indeed, she said she has taken every experience in stride --- except one. The birth of Andrew, when Butch made it through the delivery and then darted from the hospital in Morgantown, W.Va., to interview for the top job at Central Michigan.

"So I'm trying to find a ride home from the hospital," recalled Barb, laughing. "Then he calls me and says, 'I think I'm going to take the job Barb, what do you think?'. I just started crying. That was probably the only time where I really lost it and thought (what have I gotten myself into?). Because we were really happy at West Virginia. We loved it. We had already been at Central."

Within three years of leaving for Rutgers, Jones was back at Ferris State, married and having added his first full-time job, Wilkes University's offensive coordinator, to his resumé. Jones also picked out the family house for the first --- and essentially last time after he had returned to his alma mater.

That was nearly 20 years ago but the couple's give-and-take about the situation hardly showed the wear of time.

"Our first move that we had was back to Ferris State and I was the one who picked out the first house we ever bought, and that was the last time I was able to pick out the house," he said.

Why?

"It was the 'Money pit,'" Barb interjects.

"If you remember the movie the 'Money pit,' it was the 'Money pit.' Anything and everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," Jones admitted. "I had picked it out and it was the furnace. We almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning. You name it, it had it."

"The one day I came home we were getting new carpet in the back room and the guy is in the back yard actually getting sick, throwing up it was so nasty," Barb said of a project that required even the sub-floor below the carpet to be replaced.

ON THE SAME PAGE

Jones didn't much mind losing that house-hunting "privilege," as he termed it, because he and Barb have for so long been on the same page. They like the same foods; reflect their strong family backgrounds and have met the challenges of being a coaching family head-on for nearly 25 years.

Both like to shop, though Butch's ultimate hobby --- collecting watches --- is one that he carries on from his father. Otherwise, audibles rarely are necessary. Especially, he concedes, as long as Barb gets the last word.

Well, except for their favorite movies. She prefers the pensive "Shawshank Redemption." The head coach favors "All the Right Moves," and answers that he is "immature" before even Barb can spit out the label.

"Again, that's the thing that people don't see. The behind the scenes stuff, but also the struggles. Let's go back now. From being a G.A. to having your first full-time job in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Then to move up in the profession to go from Division III to Division II. I take a part-time, nine-month job with no benefits married and with a kid on the way to sacrifice for the betterment of your career," Jones said. "All of the sacrifices that go along the way."

Those experiences have marked the family's map.

ASCENDING TO TENNESSEE

Jones has won and pushed his players to excel in the classroom across every stop. This is fact; buoyed by four outright or shared conference championships in six seasons as a Football Bowls Subdivision head coach, top Big East football on-field and academic honors in 2011 and four years of Academic Progress Rate scores between 945-960.

What is lesser known is the investment all the Joneses have made along the way. Barb still speaks with parents of Cincinnati players, and those players still call their former head coach. Butch Jones said it's always been that way with the family.

"We were invested in those kids. She has a personal investment in those players. Lot of them still call, the seniors, and they ask how are Barb and the kids," Butch said. "It's a passion, but not a hobby. This is our life; we live and die on Saturdays. The worst thing I have is you come home and I lose a game and your kids are on the couch crying. They're very emotionally invested."

Everything and nothing had prepared the family to see that commitment tested the first week of last December.

CULMINATING WEEK

Jones might go to Purdue. Jones might land in Colorado. Would Wisconsin make a late push? Louisville if Charlie Strong left? Elsewhere in the Bluegrass State, Kentucky made its pitch for Joker Phillips' replacement. Jones heard all the chatter; his coaching star had been ascending and seismic shifts in college football's landscape forced Jones to examine opportunities, no matter how happy the entire family had grown at Cincinnati.

Jones' Bearcats needed win just one more game, on the road at Connecticut, to share a Big East title. Not too shabby for a group pegged middle of the pack in the league. Everyone waited for distractions to derail the team. The Bearcats doubled up the Huskies, 34-17.

"We had some big victories at Cincinnati; Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl and a lot of things but that game Friday night in Hartford, Conn., to clinch a share of the Big East Championship, that's probably the most gratifying victory," Butch said. "That one against UConn was probably the most gratifying because I was up front and honest with the kids and we went in there a determined and focused football team and I think, you know, we were picked fourth in the conference. We didn't have the best talent, but our kids had bought in and we had an unbelievable team chemistry. They played for each other and it was a special team. So you had the emotions of that and then you get back and you're contemplating things."

Perceptive, Barb had mostly shielded thoughts of relocating as wins piled up for the 'Cats and losses mounted for power programs elsewhere. Barb knew her family would have opportunities, but felt empathy for the displaced coaches and families that fell across college football in an annual purge.

Butch attended the Bearcats' bowl presser in Charlotte, N.C., but rumors swirled all around.

"We're at the Belk Bowl doing a press conference and I'm sitting in the airport and across the screen it says Butch Jones has accepted the Colorado position," he said. "It's emotional and you try to put all the emotion aside, but what people don't realize is that you're talking about a number of lives here. Where are your kids going to go to school? What's the quality of life? You're responsible for all your coaches and their families and support staff. I don't think ... in our profession that's what people don't understand. It's the families. The wives, the kids. As the head coach there's a lot on your shoulders that goes into it."

So the Joneses had elected not to go anywhere. Until Tennessee reached out at the 11th hour --- of Thursday morning, Dec. 6, 2012.

"Again, that whirlwind of that whole week. And all of the sudden it's Thursday at 11 o'clock in the morning and all of the sudden you know you have to drive to Lexington at 10 that night," Butch said. "You go through the whole night, and I call (Barb) on the way. Spags (Chris Spognardi) is sleeping in my hotel room while I'm interviewing and I'm going back and forth between the rooms. Finally, we come to an agreement about 5:30, 6 in the morning."

Barb had slept with a phone in the bed. Sure, there were details. But as the family had said, it was Tennessee in that hotel room.

"Definitely, yes. I think the tradition and the history of the school all played into it," Barb said. "I think the kids being at the (2010) game (in Knoxville) was like 'Wow!' for them."

Added Butch: "I think the first six months here has been nothing but confirmation. I'm a firm believer. I think how we have gotten through all the sacrifices is that we are very strong in our faith. We are strong in our beliefs. I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I'm a firm believer in that."

Today at Tennessee, things are happening and Butch Jones is much the reason. Donations to the school's crucial Tennessee Fund are up this spring, in part because the head coach welcomed donors to the practice field. All five Big Orange Caravan stops sold out in May, with Jones the headliner and autograph lines snaking outside of most venues.

The Joneses have at times ventured out to shop in Knoxville or Gatlinburg. Barb marvels that Butch bought the Tennessee glassware for the family's new home. Heady stuff for a couple who weren't quite sure how they would cover all the expenses when Alex was arriving but simply lived by their faith.

"It's made us who we are because we appreciate it more. All the struggles. Not having health insurance; living day-to-day, pay-check wise. Sacrificing. Thank God we had two strong sets of parents," Butch said. "We had to borrow money to make ends meet. We had to do all of that. That's part of staying in the profession. That's part of doing what you are doing, sacrificing and doing all of those things that go into it."

But the reward? Well, that's a family looking at a jumbled puzzle and all seeing the same picture.





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