HOOVER, Ala. — To many folks, Butch Jones is the dog in the “This is fine” meme.
They believe Tennessee's fifth-year coach currently sits on a blazing hot seat entering the 2017 season, still parroting the same old cheesy cliches as he’s surrounded by a cloud of smoke.
They’re wrong, of course, but Jones has done himself little favors combating an offseason narrative that’s become more forceful than a load of bricks.
His soundbites have officially overshadowed his successes.
The reality is Jones’ job security isn’t in question right now with those who matter most at Tennessee.
New athletics director John Currie is intimately aware of the ashes left from the Derek Dooley dumpster fire, and Jones has worked tirelessly to clean up the mess.
He’s landed Top-5 recruiting classes. He’s snapped losing streaks against Florida and Georgia. He’s won bowl games. Just as importantly, he’s engineered a historic APR flip to avoid real sanctions.
And yet, Jones constantly loses the public perception battle because he undercuts his own accomplishments by refusing to speak candidly about what he hasn’t yet achieved at Tennessee.
“I respect a lot of what Butch has done,” SEC Network’s Marcus Spears told VolQuest. “A lot of his quotes like ‘champions of life’ and throwing out the stats like, ‘We’re one of the only teams to win nine games,’ well that wasn't the expectations, Butch. Call it what it is: ‘We underachieved last year. We’ve got to do better as coaches.’ Not give us reasons why things are good.
“You do have to think about where Tennessee was before he got there. This was a major turnaround compared to what was happening before he got there. He’s recruiting well. But now they got to coach them up.”
Jones has coached the Vols up, though. Consecutive 9-win seasons aren’t anything to shrug at considering where the program was not too long ago.
It’s still not enough, especially for a starved fan base with legitimate and reasonable championship expectations, but the national narrative that Tennessee isn’t relevant under Jones is silly.
Why would a bunch of blue-chip recruits be jumping on a supposed sinking ship?
The bigger problem for Butch is less of what he hasn’t won yet and mostly about what he has said.
If Jones spoke with the swagger of Jim Harbaugh or Bret Bielema he’d be viewed totally differently. If he didn’t say much of anything like Jim Mora or Kevin Sumlin his image would be better, too.
Instead, Jones talks like a politician, speaking in wonky platitudes down to his constituents. His infamous “five-star hearts” and “champions of life” comments were well-intended — he was talking about character and off the field success — but ultimately dumb.
Once again, Jones caused another minor stir this week, as a rather benign SEC Media Days appearance turned into another national talking point after Jones offered up a word salad just to avoid saying explicitly last season was a disappointment. Rather than being like, ‘Yea. Of course we wanted to win the SEC East but we fell a little short. Now, we’re reloading for our next run. Hey, checkout our Top-5 recruiting class…”
Jones basically admitted last season was a disappointment without ever actually saying the words.
Enter more punchlines.
The irony for Jones is it’s his off-camera candor that’s gotten him to this point in his career. After winning championships at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, he accepted a bold challenge awaiting him in Knoxville. He may not have fully-realized what he was walking into with Big Orange Nation, but Tennessee’s locker room definitely believes Jones’ “own it message” because privately it’s not watered down.
They expect to win.
Recruits and parents love the guy because he’s engaging, personable and honest when sitting in a living room. Over the years, his assistants have been steadfastly loyal, and only because Jones correctly saw an opportunity to improve his program did he make so many offseason staff changes.
“The one thing I know about Butch, and it’s a trait in all winning coaches, and I think he’s a good coach, the one trait that he has is his players respond to him,” Spears said.
“If you look across this league, if you look on any level of football. As much as people think Bill Belichick is an a-hole and quiet, if you talk to any of those New England players they love him. And I think Tennessee players feel and really respect Butch Jones. They understand they’ve fallen short at times. But I respect where he has this program right now.”
In Hoover, Tennessee’s three seniors forcefully defended their head coach, with defensive tackle Kendal Vickers calling the hot-seat talk “a little disrespectful” because “when I got here, we were 5-7. Things were bad. For us to win three-straight bowl games, being 9-4, we haven’t won every game, but we go out there to win every game. He’s changed this program so much, and he’s done everything he’s possibly been able to do to change the culture at Tennessee.”
Still, Vickers was also the same player who did in fact call last season “a disappointment.” He didn’t delve into specifics other than acknowledging that of course Tennessee wanted to get to Atlanta.
These two truths are what many Vols fans currently struggle to grasp. It’s ok to want more, while admitting Jones has cured a lot of ills. The two points aren’t mutually exclusive, but they struggle to resonate because Jones is constantly overselling silly talking points when he's in front of a microphone.
While this is an important fall for Tennessee, it's not a make-or-break season for Jones. Not after what he's already accomplished.
The Vols certainly have a lot of unknowns, but they tout a promising group of playmakers (John Kelly, Jauan Jennings, Ty Chandler), two intriguing quarterbacks, a stout offensive line and a defense hungry to rebound from last year’s struggles.
With another wide open division, Jones has the opportunity to finally throw a brick through that glass ceiling.
Only moving forward, Tennessee's coach needs to let his team’s play do most of the talking.