The force of nature that is Tennessee football coach Butch Jones blew into the Chattanooga Convention Center on Thursday night, posing for countless pictures, running a handful of Sharpies dry signing autographs, reciting his now familiar mantras to the media that shadows his every move.
In other words, it was a typical day.
Jones has always been a tireless promoter. He did the same thing at his previous two head-coaching jobs, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but at those schools the end game was different than it is now.
“At the other two places,” Jones said, “I was going out trying to generate excitement, generate fan interest. Here, we don’t have to do that because we have such a passionate fan base.”
At Tennessee, Jones is trying to give a once-proud program back its heartbeat. It’s hard to believe Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart could have found a coach more uniquely suited to the task.
“He’s just being himself,” said Hart, who joined Jones and women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick on the trek to Chattanooga. “Butch Jones is a very genuine person. He also loves people. And you can’t fake that. He loves being around our fan base, he loves being around our former players. And that comes across.”
“I love his energy,” Warlick said. “I love his compassion. I love his love for the fans. It shows. It’s just part of his makeup.”
Rare is the coach that embraces the public relations aspect of his job the way Jones does. Rarer still is a coach who embraces public relations and can win. Hart drew sharp criticism from certain factions of Tennessee’s fan base when he hired Jones last December, but he knew exactly what he was looking for, and Jones fit the job description.
More specifically, he didn’t want a carpetbagger like Lane Kiffin, who stayed in Knoxville long enough to land the job he really wanted. Neither did he want another Derek Dooley, who was as aloof and impersonal as Jones is genuine and gregarious. What Hart needed was a cross between Lou Holtz and Nick Saban.
“Butch brings that total package,” Hart said. “People who are consistently successful, that’s not an accident. They have a plan. And they follow their plan, and they know how to surround themselves with appropriate people, and what their priorities should be. They have standards. And they hold everyone accountable to those standards.”
That goes for Jones himself. Every night before his head hits the pillow, the coach puts his day under a microscope.
“I evaluate myself,” Jones said. “Hour by hour, minute by minute. Every night when I kind of slow down a little bit, I always replay the day over in my mind. What could you have done differently? How could you have done better? I think that’s all part of being a competitor.”
Jones is another three months from coaching his first game. But signs that he’s struck some sort of chord abound. First there was a Top 25 recruiting class, salvaged from the scrap heap of the Dooley regime and augmented by the efforts of a staff hand-picked to pound the pavement the way the boss does.
In recent weeks, recruits that will be a part of the class of 2014 have begun committing with impressive regularity. Why would those players cast their lot with Tennessee if they didn’t believe Jones has something special going on?
And then there are events like Thursday’s stop on the Big Orange Caravan. Like Hart said, it would be hard to fake the enthusiasm Jones showed while working the room. And the fans-starved, as Jones put it, for Tennessee to “regain its rightful place among the elite of college football”-are enthusiastic for Jones.
“It hasn’t surprised me,” Jones said of the reaction he receives everywhere he goes. “It’s more solidified my belief in Tennessee football and the importance it has, in the great state of Tennessee and also nationwide. People can feel the energy, they can feel the excitement right now that’s surrounding our football program.”