Vols hire Cincinnati’s Jones as new football coach

Butch Jones was pondering whether to leave Cincinnati this week

to coach Colorado when he received a text message that

inadvertently foreshadowed his eventual destination.

It was from Denver Broncos quarterback and Tennessee great

Peyton Manning.

”He was selling me on Colorado,” Jones said. ”He said it was

hard for a person from the University of Tennessee to be selling

somebody to come to the University of Colorado. I wanted to text

him back, `Come on, I want to go to Tennessee.’ ”

That’s exactly where Jones ended up.

Tennessee introduced Jones on Friday as its successor to Derek

Dooley, who was fired Nov. 18 after going 15-21 in three seasons.

Jones called Tennessee his dream job and said he was taking over

”the best college football program in America.”

It hardly mattered to Jones that he wasn’t Tennessee’s first

choice.

”I think I was my wife’s third choice, and it’s worked for 20

years,” Jones said.

The 44-year-old Jones has a 50-27 record in six seasons as a

head coach. He went 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan and

was 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years. He now faces the task

of rebuilding a former Southeastern Conference power that has

posted three consecutive losing seasons.

Jones agreed to a six-year contract worth $18.2 million, ending

a tumultuous couple of days for both himself and his new school.

Colorado had offered him a five-year deal worth at least $13.5

million.

Tennessee went after at least two other candidates before hiring

Jones.

During the 19-day search to replace Dooley, the Volunteers

contacted ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon

Gruden, who indicated he wasn’t interested. The Vols then pursued

Charlie Strong, who said Thursday he had turned down their offer

and would stay at Louisville.

”Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be,”

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. ”Life doesn’t throw us

all fastballs. It throws us curves, and then you’ve got some

screwballs. … You’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Jones, meanwhile, was apparently waiting for a job like

Tennessee.

On the same day Strong made his announcement, Jones rejected

Colorado’s offer. He also had been linked to the Purdue coaching

job before removing himself from consideration.

Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock said Jones told him

Thursday morning that he was turning down Colorado. Mere minutes

later, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart called Babcock to

express his interest in Jones. Babcock said Jones notified him

Friday at 5:15 a.m. that he was accepting Tennessee’s offer. Jones

informed Cincinnati’s players at a 7:30 a.m. team meeting.

”It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Jones said.

Jones’ hiring means each of the four Southeastern Conference

teams that fired coaches this year has filled its vacancy.

Kentucky hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops

last week to replace Joker Phillips. Arkansas hired Bret Bielema

away from Wisconsin on Tuesday to take over for John L. Smith.

Auburn selected Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn on Tuesday as the

replacement for Gene Chizik.

Jones will be Tennessee’s fourth coach in a six-season stretch,

not including offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s stint as interim

head coach in the 2012 season finale after Dooley’s dismissal.

Phillip Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season. Lane Kiffin coached

Tennessee in 2009 before leaving for Southern California. Dooley

lasted three years.

After winning at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons

from 1989-2004 and posting double-digit wins in nine of those

years, Tennessee hasn’t earned more than seven victories in any of

its last five seasons. The Vols went 5-7 this fall for their fifth

losing season over the last eight years.

Jones believes Tennessee can recapture its past glory.

”Our fan base and myself have the same expectations,” Jones

said. ”We’re working to be the best. We’re working to be No. 1

every day. We’re working to be national champions, and we’re

working to be SEC champions. This program has done it, and we’ll do

it again.”

Hart said at the start of the search that head coaching

experience was ”critically important” and that he wanted a coach

who ”knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC.”

Jones lacks SEC experience, but his teams have earned at least a

share of a conference title in four of his six seasons as a head

coach.

”Les Miles and Nick Saban had zero SEC experience when they

came into this league,” Jones said.

After replacing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at Central Michigan

and then again at Cincinnati, Jones maintained the momentum his

predecessor had established at each school.

In Jones’ three-year stint at Central Michigan, the Chippewas

won two Mid-American Conference championships. Jones went 4-8 in

his first year at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats are 19-6 since and

have tied for first place in the Big East each of the last two

seasons. Cincinnati’s 2011 season included a 45-23 loss at

Tennessee.

Jones, the third consecutive Cincinnati coach to leave after

three years, signed a contract extension after the 2011 season that

included a $1.4 million buyout if he left before Jan. 1. Mark

Dantonio went 18-17 at Cincinnati from 2004-06 before Michigan

State hired him away. Kelly posted a 34-6 record before leaving for

Notre Dame.

Cincinnati has made defensive line coach Steve Stripling its

interim head coach for the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl against Duke in

Charlotte, N.C., while it begins searching for Jones’

successor.

”Obviously we’d like to find somebody who would be committed

here for a long time, and I think we’re prepared to make those

investments necessary to do that,” Babcock said.

Now that he’s left Cincinnati for Tennessee, Jones has plenty of

challenges ahead.

He must restore a sense of order to a program that has lacked

stability amid all these coaching changes. He also must win over a

fan base that sought a bigger name and doesn’t know much about him

beyond the fact his Bearcats couldn’t beat Dooley’s Vols a year

ago.

”You don’t move backward,” Hart said. ”You move forward. I

think that’s what we have to do now as a fan base. Our alumni, our

fan base, we’ve got to come back together as one. We’ve got to come

back together and get Tennessee football back where we all want

it.”

Hart believes he’s found the guy to get Tennessee there, even if

he wasn’t the Vols’ first pick.

AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Larry Lage in Ann

Arbor, Mich., and Teresa Walker in Nashville, contributed to this

report.