KNOXVILLE – Sighting a celebrity or two at an SEC practice isn’t unheard of. Tennessee coach Butch Jones raised the bar in Knoxville on Wednesday – bringing in two-time NBA championship head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat for what he titled “Championship Wednesday.”
And while most sports fans see Spoelstra and immediately associate him with his back-to-back NBA titles won with the help of superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Jones sees more than that when he looks at his good friend.
He sees a coach who grinded his way up from intern to championship-winning head coach. He sees a coach who struggled to get past the first round of the NBA playoffs as a newcomer, but was able to overcome that and help build a franchise that is now the best in the league.
In short, Jones wants his players and coaches to be around a winner – a man who knows how to build a championship-quality program.
“There are so many similarities,” Jones said after practice on Wednesday of what UT is trying to do and what the Heat have done. “The building of the Miami Heat – everybody remembers right now and the last two years, but a lot of people forget the building process that goes through that. Prior to [Spoelsta’s] first year, they won 15 games, so he’s going to know about that building process.
"Anytime you can bring an individual like Erik Spoelstra in to speak to your team it's great. It means a lot to this team. He's going to talk about the building process of creating a team like they have in Miami. He's been a great resource for me."
Spoelstra’s day in Knoxville comes a few months after Jones travelled to Miami to watch the Heat win Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs on June 20.
Jones and Spoelstra formed somewhat of an unlikely friendship by way of their shared agent, Trace Armstrong. In the past Jones has spoken of his friendship with Spoelstra and how they share many common coaching philosophies.
Players gave Spoelstra a round of applause as he walked up to address the team after practice. Many of the players were impressed with the caliber of guest that Jones was able to bring to practice.
"It's definitely an honor and I feel blessed just to get to hear from somebody who has won it all,” said junior wide receiver Devrin Young. “I really appreciate Coach Jones for doing that. He's doing all he can to just get us prepared and show us what it takes mentally and physically to win a championship."
Added junior wide receiver Jacob Carter: "That's crazy. I mean I've just seen him on TV you know. It's kind of a reality check. It's nice. That's the things we're able to do here at Tennessee. Coach Jones is able to do stuff like that. It's nice having him here. He'll talk to us later this afternoon. I'm looking forward to it."
Spoelstra is scheduled to stay in town for the day, address the team further this afternoon and take in at least some of tonight’s 6:50 practice at Neyland Stadium.
• Out: CB Riyahd Jones (leg), DE Jacques Smith (thumb), DE Corey Vereen (knee), TE Justin Meredith (hamstring), CB Michael Williams (shoulder).
• Limited: LB Curt Maggitt, RB Marlin Lane, LB Justin King, WR Paul Harris
Butch Jones said there is still no word on the extent of Riyahd Jones’ leg injury. Couch and Ellis were both back in regular jerseys after being non-contact recently. Maggitt got some limited reps in practice. He has been working primarily with trainers during camp as he recovers from a torn ACL.
Notes and observations:
•The Vols worked on red-zone offense and defense on Wednesday morning with a 7-on-7 drill. Quarterback Justin Worley had a nice throw on the run for a 17-yard touchdown to Pig Howard. Two plays later, Devrin Young dropped a pass by Worley, but one play later made up for it with a short touchdown grab.
• Quarterback stats from the brief drill:
Justin Worley: 3/4, 2 TDs (Howard, Young)
Nathan Peterman: 0/2
Riley Ferguson: 1/1, TD (Jacob Carter)
Joshua Dobbs: 0/1
• Some of the special teams units are beginning to come together. The first-team kickoff unit, for now, consists of Michael Palardy, Christian Harris, Tom Smith, Alden Hill, Geraldo Orta, Greg King, Jaron Toney, Brent Brewer, Byron Moore, Tino Thomas and Drae Bowles.
• Kickoff return team: Lemond Johnson, Byron Moore, Brent Brewer, Max Arnold, Alex Ellis, Raiques Crump, John Propst, Christian Harris and Greg King. The return duos of Devrin Young and Jaron Toney and Marquez North and Rajion Neal both got a shot with the first team on Wednesday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga