NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before he started building something new with Tennessee football, Butch Jones figured how to only embrace the past … and make it work for him and the program.
That was the message the second-year coach professed from the first day he took over the Volunteers. He reiterated it again earlier Tuesday, before speaking to an estimated 500 faithful at an annual kickoff luncheon at the Wildhorse Saloon.
"It’s all about our former players," said Jones, who’s trying to halt a program skid of four straight losing seasons, including going 5-7 last year (first season). "They’re the ones that kind of built the program with their sweat equity. It’s all about them. They are the program."
That comes just a few days after several former Volunteers harshly criticized the three-year tenure of former Volunteers coach Derek Dooley during an event over the weekend in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dooley went a combined 16-21 from 2010-12, including winning only one SEC game each of the final two seasons before being fired.
"Derek Dooley was a loser," said Corey Larkins, a four-year letterman at tailback for Tennessee from 2001-04, earlier in the week. "He’ll always be a loser, and he rubbed off on the program and created a losing attitude."
Also taking shots at Dooley and former Vols coach Lane Kiffin, who stayed for only the 2009 season before bolting to Southern Cal, was Volunteers linebacker great Al Wilson. From 1995-98, Wilson helped Tennessee go 45-5 and capture the 1998 national championship under former coach Phillip Fulmer.
"I really don’t even want to say the names of the two guys who were there between coach Fulmer and coach Jones," said Wilson, an eight-year NFL linebacker with the Broncos. "They don’t deserve to have their names mentioned with Tennessee football.
"… That’s a place I care about a lot, and I’m just glad that there’s somebody in charge again who gets it and who wants to be there and take the program back to where it was and where it should be."
When asked today about those and other recent comments about Dooley and Kiffin by former Volunteers concerning his predecessors, Jones took the high road. But he did mention that program tradition built by former players played a large role in a top-five incoming recruiting class and one for 2015 that already has 22 commitments and is ranked seventh nationally by Scout.com.
"To be able to have these individuals come back is great," said Jones, whose team opens practice Friday and the season Sunday, Aug. 31 against visiting Utah State. "That’s the power of Tennessee. That’s the great tradition that we have, but also the affinity that our former players have for the Tennessee Vols and our football family."
The most prominent of former Volunteers is Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, the Pro Football Hall of Fame lock and 16-year NFL veteran who’s been named Most Valuable Player five times. Before training camp Monday, Manning caused quite a national stir when he danced a public jig to Rocky Top, the Tennessee fight song.
"I thought it was outstanding," Jones said of the impromptu dance by Manning, who has visited Jones and his players multiple times. "It is exciting to see the excitement with Rocky Top playing. It’s another illustration to our players of the magnitude and the relevance which they represent each and every day."
Jones also noted that former Volunteers standout tackle and team captain Chad Clifton recently visited the team’s facility for the first time in years. After lettering for the Vols from 1996-99, Clifton played a dozen seasons for the Green Bay Packers.
"It has been a number of years since (Clifton) has been in our building," Jones said, "and he came in with his family. To be able to spend time with him — and you look at this summer — a lot of former players came back."
Other recent visits by former Volunteers now in the NFL included Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and Chiefs safety Eric Berry, whose younger brothers — Evan and Elliott Berry — were highly recruited defensive backs and part of Tennessee’s 32-player incoming signing class. With roster turnover of around 50 percent, many true freshmen are being depended upon to play key roles this season.
Also visiting recently was former Volunteers defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who played a decade in the NFL. Earlier this year, he opened a restaurant near campus called BurgerFi.
"One day I look down there and our entire defensive line is in in the indoor (facility)," Jones said, "and it’s Albert holding court."
While there is a general consensus the program has growing momentum, it is still one that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2011. The last time the Volunteers didn’t play in a bowl game in four-straight seasons was from 1975-78, the first two seasons under former coach Bill Battle and the last two under Johnny Majors.
Jones said today that the Volunteers’ fan base, much like many of the former players, is realistic about this coming season and understands it is going to take several top-notch recruiting classes to get the program back to competing for SEC championships.
"There is always high standards and expectations at the University of Tennessee," Jones said. "But our fan base has been great. They understand what we are going through right now. But I think it is going to be great because our fan base is going to be able to watch this team mature over time. We just have to focus on the process."