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July 18, 2013

Butch barnstorms the SECs

HOOVER, Ala. --- The shuttle rolls to a stop, temperatures outside already crawling toward 90, when Butch Jones rises to deliver one final brief message to the players accompanying him to represent Tennessee's football program Wednesday at SEC Media Days.

There is order to Jones' methods, and order for this day. There is none when Jones enters and Vols fans, Auburn fans, Arkansas fans, 'Bama fans and more press toward Jones in seek of a signature. A photo. A moment.

Meticulous, Jones believes he mostly knows what to expect from his inaugural trip to the SEC's annual indoor circus. The schedule he examines includes approximately 15 scheduled stops; Jones surely makes twice that many unofficial ones.

He rides up the elevator, briefly regrouping on the 14th floor before descending two floors for his first batch of interviews. It is the "local" session, which is to say 30-40 media types crowd into a double-doored suite to chat with Jones, Ja'Wuan James, Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson and Jacques Smith.

Jones is mic'd up, and really isn't it time he simply bite the proverbial bullet on a tooth mic? The guy is the most accessible coach in the league, and he never misses an opportunity to disseminate his message. The microphone is switched off only for the rare moments the coach actually has time for a restroom break.

Leadership. Family. Core values. Fast tempo, yes, but don't confuse that with marginalized physicality, Jones emphasizes.

Jones references "brick-by-brick," the viral recruiting catchphrase that's right now linked to the nation's top crop of verbal pledges for 2014, and rarely misses an opportunity to wear his orange rubber "Rise to the Top" bracelet.

So Jones is asked which slogan is his favorite?

"Win," he deadpans.

Jones answers iterations of similar questions patiently, ceaselessly for more than 30 minutes in the room. He drifts to a handful of one-on-ones, chatting with Brent Daugherty from Nashville radio, and finally settles at a table with his players and media honcho Jimmy Stanton for a quick sub sandwich.

Jones alternates water and Diet Coke; doesn't touch the potato chips and eats half his sub. He offers the other half to players and then to this reporter.

Jones and his very modest entourage plus film crew exit the suite, and he turns and asks, "You following us around today?"

"Yes, sir."

"Beautiful," he says.

Jones asks his most indispensable assistant, Chris "Spags" Spognardi, if he's gotten a haircut for this event. He's been with Jones a half-dozen years, but this is his first media days trip because of the enormity of the event. "Spags" has one of the most interesting vantage points for the day, and he also knows "Coach's personality is perfect for these events."

At the second floor, Jones exits and begins the gauntlet. SEC Digital network, followed by the SEC TV work and a spot on ESPNU. Jones chats with Cara Capuano, Tom Luginbill and others.

He meets John Gibson from the SEC's headquarters and chats briefly with Gibson and fellow SEC employee Tre Stallings, a former Ole Miss player.

Around noon, Jones gives the SEC a dose of his sudden change methodology. Interview rooms are becoming backlogged, so Jones breaks from the league script in an effort to remain efficient. He doesn't follow the prescribed order, but Jones doesn't miss a stop.

With former Colorado, UCLA and Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, now with Sirius, Jones discusses the 1979 film "The Great Santini."

Along another stop, Jones is asked what superhero power he would ascertain if granted such an ability.

Jones' answer is instantly priceless. He wants to be able to force a turnover and regain possession of the football at any time.

Jones is on stage in the grand media room for less than 25 minutes and then knocks out his stops for CSS and in the Internet/radio room.

It is 1:52 p.m., and the UT contingent is nearing the conclusion of its obligations. Jones logs nine minutes in the first general TV room and exactly nine minutes in the second one. Except for a trio of stops along "Radio Row" in the hotel lobby, Jones' day of more than 200 questions is complete.

So he chats with a number of local, regional and national reporters. Jokes around with Brock Huard and David Pollack.

Turning around, Jones says with a hearty laugh, "You just want the airtime. You want the camera time. That's why you're following me."

Tennessee officials hope to leave by 2:30-2:45, but the head coach knows no strangers. He also finds another throng of fans clamoring for his signature at the bottom of the escalator. So for five more minutes, Jones signs photos, magazines, helmets, footballs. A baby is elevated on his parents' shoulders for a photo or autograph or something, but Jones is swarmed and there's no Ricky Bobby moment where ink is applied to a forehead.

Jones, with camp a mere two weeks from today, prepares for the hour flight back home. There is more planning in the office and another plane ride to Nashville, where the Vols are hosting their annual Big Orange Picnic in a battleground area for the state's top players and largest population cluster.

There are no missteps and seemingly no hands left unshaken. Maybe a baby was missed, but not any opportunities for Jones to sell Tennessee.

"Obviously to have the number of media and people in attendance and all the networks, I think it just shows again the magnitude of this conference but also the magnitude of Tennessee football," he says before disappearing into a secret elevator, the only time all day Jones skirts the masses. "You walk in and you see the lobby filled with orange and again that shows you the importance of Tennessee football.

"I've come to expect that everywhere we've been because of the passion, but to have that many here it was a great sight, and I think it was a great illustration to our players here (Wednesday). Just how important Tennessee football is."


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