KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When his lack of Southeastern Conference experience came up at his introductory news conference Friday, Tennessee coach Butch Jones wasted no time responding.
“I’ll be the first to tell you that Nick Saban and Les Miles had zero experience when they came into the league,” Jones said.
Jones’ chances of approaching their success will depend on how well he adapts to the conference that has won the last six national championships.
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During his last two stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Jones went 50-27 and won at least a share of four conference titles in six seasons. The SEC offers a much tougher test than the Mid-American Conference or Big East.
Jones relishes the opportunity.
“If you want to be best, you want to compete in the best,” Jones said. “Obviously the SEC is the best football conference in the country. I have many good friends that compete at this level – on the center stage – and I look forward to it.”
Lately, Tennessee hasn’t been competitive at this level.
The Volunteers have gone 1-7 in SEC play each of the last two seasons. Jones is replacing Derek Dooley, who was fired after losing 14 of his last 15 conference games.
That makes this a new type of challenge for Jones, who inherited winning teams from Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Now he must rebuild a Tennessee program that has produced three straight losing seasons.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said at the start of the search he wanted someone familiar with the challenges of the SEC. Although Jones hasn’t worked in the SEC before, Hart believes the coach understands the league well enough to succeed.
“I do think it’s important — particularly in this league and we talked about this at great length — to understand this league and to understand the competitive nature of this league,” Hart said. “Butch talked about how good the Southeastern Conference is at the line of scrimmage. He talked a lot about that. He has an excellent grasp and an excellent plan on what he wants to do in that regard.”
That plan could include adding assistants who have competed in this league and have recruited in SEC territory before.
Jones’ contract includes a minimum of $3 million per year to pay his assistants. Jones vowed to put together “the best football staff in the country,” though he also noted SEC experience wasn’t essential for a coach to recruit effectively in this part of the country.
“Recruiting is a people business, so I want the best teachers and best recruiters no matter where we have to go get them,” Jones said. “I do think it’s important that we have some coaches that know the lay of the land, but I really think if you’re a great recruiter, you can recruit anywhere because it’s all relationship based.”
Jones wants some staff members with Tennessee roots. He placed a priority on recruiting within his home state, a recent problem for the Vols.
“The first thing you want to do in any situation in recruiting is own your home territory, and Dooley did let that get away from him,” said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “It’s a combination of a few things. Winning is the first. When Tennessee wins, those kids flock to Knoxville. When you’ve got a dynamic recruiter (Vanderbilt’s James Franklin) across the state and Vanderbilt’s the better program in state, you’re going to end up having those kids either decide to look harder at Vanderbilt or just take off.”
The Vols don’t have verbal commitments from any of Tennessee’s top five 2013 recruits according to Rivals, and four of them have committed elsewhere. Rivals listed 10 four-star prospects from Tennessee in 2012. Only one signed with the Vols.
“We are going to win first and foremost with the great state of Tennessee,” Jones said. “We have tremendous high school coaches in this state. We are the state institution and we will own our state. We are going to be at every high school in the state, and our players are going to understand what it is to wear the `power T.’
“They’re going to understand what it is to represent their home institution. I take great pride in that.”
Jones also takes pride in his track record. He believes his previous results show he can make Tennessee a contender, even if that resume doesn’t include any stops at SEC schools.
The improvement might not happen immediately. Cincinnati went 4-8 in Jones’ first season, but the Bearcats have gone 19-6 since. Jones used the term “process” — one of Saban’s favorite buzzwords — to describe the project he’s taking on at Tennessee.
“It’s a process,” Jones said. “You have to look at the body of work. It hasn’t been just performed at one institution. It’s now been formed at two institutions along the way, and I look forward to the third here at Tennessee.”