NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just a day after he announced the future of Tennessee football on National Signing Day, new Volunteers coach Butch Jones emphasized the importance of connecting with the past.
It came during a whirlwind day, traversing the state from one end to the other to connect with win-starved fans. Three sold-out events — breakfast in Memphis, lunch in Nashville and dinner in Knoxville — allowed Jones to not only introduce his new coaching staff, but also tell of his first recruiting class that Scout.com ranked 32nd nationally.
And it also afforded the former Cincinnati and Central Michigan head coach, who replaced the fired Derek Dooley in early December, the opportunity to again echo the mantra he has espoused on a daily basis since taking over the reins nearly two months to the day.
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“I understand that I am the caretaker of Tennessee football,” said Jones soon after the luncheon at a downtown Nashville hotel that attracted more than 500 orange-clad fans. They were introduced to every member of UT’s new coaching staff, who each took turns describing and showing videos of all 21 incoming recruits.
“Tennessee deserves Tennessee football to be in the upper echelon of college football and be the best college football program in the country. We’re working (toward) that goal each and every day.”
Certainly, Jones and staff have their work cut out, considering the Vols have suffered three straight losing seasons for the first time in program history. It is a far cry from where former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer had built the successful program, culminating with the 1998 national championship.
Other than hitting the ground running in recruiting, one of the first orders of business for Jones was to connect with former Volunteers players. They had expressed displeasure with disenfranchisement from the program during the regimes of Dooley and Lane Kiffin, who followed Fulmer in 2009 and stayed one season before moving on to Southern Cal.
“It’s all about our former players,” Jones said. “They are the program. They have laid the sweat equity. It’s all about embracing your past. I think it is a great illustration for our recruits, for your players right now, about the excellence we have with our former great players.”
Jones and staff don’t have to go far to get a crash course in UT football tradition. Running backs coach Jay Graham, a former Vols standout back, was a holdover from the previous staff.
“Coach (Jones) has come in and talked a lot about tradition,” said Graham, who rushed for 2,609 yards for Tennessee from 1993-96. A former third-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, he spent six NFL seasons with Baltimore, Seattle and Green Bay.
“You could see in their eyes and their actions how they were trying very hard to be part of the program,” said Graham of fellow former players in recent years. “It is very important. That is how you pass on tradition.”
Soon after he was hired, Jones invited former Vols to several functions in Knoxville, and he continues to reach out to players of the past on a daily basis, including star quarterback Peyton Manning, who recently agreed to speak at Jones’ first coaching clinic at UT this spring.
“It’s important for (the former players) to have an open door policy so they can walk into the facility, so they can walk into practice,” Graham said.
Also high on the agenda for Jones is connecting with fans, thus Thursday’s trek across The Volunteer State. And from the response in Nashville, what Jones is saying is being well-received.
“I just love his passion,” said Vols fan Kevin Hedrick of Columbia, Tenn., of Jones after the Nashville gathering. “You can tell he is going to do everything he can to get it to the top. I just can tell this is a job that he really wants.
“This is his dream job. I think he can feel that passion of the fans. I think he really wants to do good and wants people to be proud of him for doing good.”
For Sandra Coggins of nearby Lebanon, Tenn., it’s rather simple: Just win, baby.
“I’m ready to start winning,” she said. “I so love the Vols. My whole week is sad when we lose.
“My friends keep telling me that I have to get over it and get a life. But I just can’t stand all this losing.”
Jones understands he has taken over a job that for decades has defined a football-crazed state. Since the school’s BCS title, UT fans have witnessed four other SEC teams — Alabama, LSU, Florida and Auburn — win national championships. At the very least, the season is supposed to end with a bowl game.
“I don’t know if it’s desperation,” Jones said of UT fans yearning for a return to SEC title contention, putting the team back into the national picture, as well.
“It’s more a pride of who we are,” he added. “And it’s a standard and an expectation that accompanies with being Tennessee football and the Tennessee football program. I see more of a hunger and a passion. But I also see an expectation, and that is what you want.”
Bob Kesling, the Voice of the Volunteers since 1999, was emcee at each of Thursday’s stops, and he has seen the connect between Jones and fans firsthand.
“He has handled it great,” Kesling said of Jones. “Every time I have seen him, he is the same. He is a high-energy guy. He demands a lot.
“He demands a lot from his staff. He demands a lot from his players. And he demands a lot from himself. That’s very good for a football coach.”
Like any other coach in the SEC, Jones will ultimately be judged on wins and losses. But he is steadfast in maintaining that winning the little battles along the way should lead to wins down the road.
“It’s creating a vision,” said Jones, who will begin his first spring practice at UT on March 9. The annual Orange & White spring game will be April 20 at Neyland Stadium.
“It’s leadership,” he added. “It’s having the right people in place and all speaking the same terminology and all having a one-belief system. We are very fortunate because I really believe we have all the people in place to be successful.”