KNOXVILLE – Calling Tennessee his “dream job,” new head football coach Butch Jones spoke to the media for the first time Friday afternoon in the Peyton Manning locker room inside Neyland Stadium.
He was just hours removed from saying goodbye to his former team at Cincinnati. It was a meeting where he said his players applauded him for his new job.
He had just come from meeting his team for the first time. He was energetic, confident and excited to take on what he sees as the best job in America.
“The plan is infallible if the players buy in,” Jones said of how he will overcome Tennessee’s recent struggles as a program.
Jones cited his success as the head coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as reasons for optimism at Tennessee. He won a conference championship four times in six seasons at his two stops as a head coach before Tennessee. He brings a 50-27 overall record as a head coach and was named the 2011 Big East Coach of the Year by the coaches of the conference and received the same honor from CBSSports.com in 2012.
“I am very pleased that Butch Jones is the head football coach at Tennessee,” said vice chancellor and director of athletics Dave Hart. “Butch has a track record of success at every program he has led, and he views Tennessee as the job he coveted. We look forward to Butch leading our football program back to prominence.”
Hart disclosed more information about what was at times a tumultuous coaching search the last 20 days. He said that Jones was one of approximately six candidates that he targeted initially, but also confessed that he spoke to others before Jones. Hart said he did reach out to Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden, but was told, via his agent, that he was not interested in returning to the college game.
Hart said he spent the most time with Jones and three other unnamed candidates. Louisville head coach Charlie Strong and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy are believed to be two of the others. The fourth could be North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, Miami’s Al Golden or any other number of other unreported candidates.
“Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be,” Hart said in reference to the search. “Life doesn’t always throw us fastballs. It throws us curves, then it throws some screwballs . You have to be able to adjust.”
Jones and Hart thanked former coach Derek Dooley for the job he did in laying a foundation that will give Jones an opportunity to be successful.
Jones also discussed some of the questions many fans have asked in the hours following his hiring. Citing multiple examples, he defended his belief that he can be successful in the SEC despite his lack of experience in the conference.
“You have to look at the body of work,” Jones said. “It hasn’t been just formed at one institution. It’s now been formed at two institutions along the way and I look forward to the third here at Tennessee. I’m extremely excited about it. I will be the first to tell you that (Alabama coach) Nick Saban and (LSU coach) Les Miles had zero SEC experience when they came into the league, so that’s awesome.”
He addressed his offense, which he said he doesn’t refer to as a “spread” because that implies a finesse style. He vowed that Tennessee will play hard, fast, smart and will protect the football while emphasizing a balanced attack that plays to the strengths of his personnel. He also said Tennessee, after utilizing a 3-4 defense this season, will switch back to a four-man base front in 2013.
“We are going to be a team that is going to swarm to the football and causes turnovers,” he said. “We’ll be a team that doesn’t beat itself.”
Staff plans: Jones said he hasn’t made any final staff decisions as of Friday, but that he would actively be working to put together a top staff.
“I can assure that we will put together the best football staff in the country,” he said. “Not just the Southeastern Conference, but the entire country. I have a checklist of what I’m looking for. First of all it starts with character. I want individuals with tremendous character and then I want great teachers. Great teachers in the game of life, great teachers in the game of football.”
Jones said he would probably bring a few members of his staff from Cincinnati with him. He also said it would be important to have a “Tennessee guy” on the staff. He made no promises, but when asked about former Tennessee quarterback and current Southern California assistant coach Tee Martin, Jones said he was the type of person he would consider reaching out to.
VFL program to remain in place: The “Vols for Life” (VFL) program implemented by Dooley is likely to remain under Jones.
“Absolutely,” Hart said. “He’s very excited about that and he met briefly and talked to (VFL Coordinator) Antone Davis about that a little bit when he came in. That’s a priority for our program, something Derek deserves a lot of credit for establishing and putting in place.”
The VFL program focuses on off-the-field issues such as academics, financial planning, spiritual development and other general life skills.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.