The renovation of Tennessee football
February, 25, 2013
By Travis Haney | ESPN.com
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The identifying color around here is not exactly a guarded secret. If you're from East Tennessee, you are somewhat-to-overtly obsessive about Pantone 151; if you're not, you loathe it to the point of nausea.
Orange is perpetually abundant on the University of Tennessee campus, and these days that's especially true. Traffic cones and barricades are a similar hue to the one that defines the school, and a number of them line the streets and adjacent construction sites.
Things are a mess. It's difficult to get around the various building projects. It doesn't particularly appear pleasing. So that's the downside.
The positive: There's a plan. Despite the setbacks and inconveniences, there's the promise that one day things will be improved.
You're smart. You probably already know where this is going. Butch Jones, hired Dec. 7 as the school's fourth football coach in five years, inherited a similar mess. But he is insistent that he has a plan and things will soon be restored, just as the campus construction continues around him. Pardon the dust. Tennessee football, the once-proud program, is under construction.
"There's renewed optimism. There's a vision," Jones told me earlier this month, sitting in his recently completed football office that seems as if it's been pulled from the pages of an IKEA catalog. "You're going to get consistency. You're going to get continuity. It's a chance to represent one of those most storied football programs in the country.
"I understand I'm the caretaker of Tennessee football. I'm fortunate to be here."
Speaking informally with some people at Tennessee, no one is in the business of bashing the most recent regime. But it's clear there has been a departure in attitude, something that was noticeable even during Jones' first days.
It's a matter of connection, really. And it's a matter of connecting in a variety of ways to a variety of people. It's the willingness to create a bridge to fans, alums with money, players, recruits, peers, former players and media members.
Some head coaches get that and manage it well. Some do not. From the conversations I have had, and listening to him personally, Jones seems up for making those connections. The previous coach, Derek Dooley, often was not, at least not beyond necessity. Those close to the program indicated Dooley was mostly disinterested in doing anything other than coaching football, even though the modern job requirements extend well beyond that. (Some coaches, especially younger ones, do everything but coach, it seems.)
Jim Brown/US PresswireFew at Tennessee take shots at Derek Dooley, but they knew it was time for a new voice.
That isn't necessarily Dooley's fault if that's who he is; it does, however, become the burden of the person who hired him. That's among the reasons why Dave Hart is now the AD and Mike Hamilton is not. There was so much effort to "find the opposite" with Hamilton's hires, from the vanilla-but-methodical Phillip Fulmer to the flamboyant-but-boyish Lane Kiffin to the professional-but-controlling Dooley.
Those failures brought Hart to his first big hire at Tennessee. Hart arrived from Alabama in September 2011, with the pronounced dip already well under way. By the time he let Dooley go with one week left in the 2012 season, the Volunteers were guaranteed their fifth losing season in eight years after 16 consecutive winning seasons (13 under Fulmer).
"We've struggled. We've had five, six tough years," Hart told me last week, also reminding me that the school, in addition to three ADs and four football coaches, has had seven presidents since 2000. "We've had way too much transition. We've got to establish stability."
He sought that in Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, but Gundy remained. He sought it in Louisville's Charlie Strong, but he stayed. Hart saw it in Jones, too. While Hart might have given chase to others, he hinted that Jones was never far off that pace.
Genuine is a word a number of different people used with me when describing Lyle Allen "Butch" Jones, the son of a small-town police chief in Michigan.
"That's part of his DNA," Hart said. "He's not faking it. The guy is like that every day of his life. He's got a lot of positive energy and it's contagious."
You've got to work to build those relationships every single day. We're going to recruit every single day. We have a great product, a great brand. ... Who wouldn't want to come to Tennessee? That's the way we look at it now.
-- Vols head coach Butch Jones