KNOXVILLE – Just over four months ago, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones stood at his introductory press conference in Knoxville and laid out exactly what he was looking for in his staff.
It could be summed up in one word: Teachers.
“I want great teachers,” he said. “Great teachers in the game of life, great teachers in the game of football – fundamentalists, motivators. There's a difference between teaching and presenting. Anybody can present anything. What we want is great teachers, and individuals who have passion to be here at the University of Tennessee.”
Jones assembled his 'teaching' staff, but he remains the highest-ranking professor on the field. Often armed with a microphone, the first-year head coach roams around the field full of advice and wisdom for any given situation the Vols face on the practice field.
He was especially active during Saturday’s scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. In the midst of a fast-paced practice, Jones took a moment to explain the significance of the back-to-the-goal-line drill the Vols were going through. He noted that teams that can get the ball to the 5-yard line in that situation avoid having to punt from their tight formation – giving them a better chance to prevent a big return.
A few yards can make a big difference, especially for a team coming off a 5-7 campaign and looking for its first postseason appearance since 2010. That was one of his many lessons that day.
“Our margin of error with this football team is very slim,” Jones said. “You all see it. We all know. We could be a good football team but our margin of error is extremely small. It is limited. So we can't have turnovers. We can't have penalties. Our players understand that. Every time out is a teaching moment.”
Even the ugly moments are a chance for a lesson. When true freshman defensive end Corey Vereen shoved a teammate well after the whistle on Saturday, Jones immediately announced his ejection from practice – telling the early enrollee to take his helmet and shoulder pads off and call it a day.
Vereen was pulled off the field, but it turned out to be nothing but another lesson in disguise.
"I called him over just like I do everyone – I wanted to get his take and he knew right away,” Jones said of Vereen, who was allowed to re-enter practice soon after the incident. “He understood and I made a point of it but we moved on and he has earned the right of it by the way he has worked. … Everything is a teaching moment.”
Perhaps nobody on the staff embodies the teaching model better than offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. One of the smallest men on the field on any given day, Bajakian looks more the part of professor than stereotypical football coach.
A former math teacher, the Vols’ first-year offensive coordinator has always been drawn to the teaching aspect of the sport.
"Since way back when I recognized that my future of playing football was limited, and I recognized that pretty early on, I knew I wanted to go into teaching and coaching,” he said. “In many ways we're in the field of education. So much of coaching is what you do in the classroom. So much of coaching is what your guys are able to absorb.
“Your product is what you see on video. We're going to make sure that we approach the game from a standpoint that we're going to focus and improve on details and coach every little thing we need to improve on."
Added tight ends coach Mark Elder: "That's who we are, we're teachers. Just our subject is football. I think that every single coach that's here really envisions himself as a teacher first and foremost because that's what we're doing. We're teaching them the game of football, the game of life."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga