Butch Jones’ spiel on the Big Orange Caravan trail this summer sounded familiar. The new Tennessee head coach just used a fresh metaphor to deliver the message.
“Every house begins with a solid foundation,” Jones said in speech after speech. “We are laying that foundation brick by brick.”
The line became such a standard part of Jones’ stump speech that fans brought orange bricks to events for the coach to autograph.
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“If (masons) forget to lay one brick or one brick isn’t properly aligned, it is out of place and they need to start the project over,” Jones said over and over, each time delivering the lines as if this analogy had just occurred to him. “It is just like building a football program. Everyone has to be totally aligned. Whether it is our support staff, training staff, equipment staff, coaching staff or our players, we’re looking for everyone to be all aligned. That’s kind of where the ‘brick by brick’ started and it is the basis of a foundation.”
But there is a problem. If a foundation has to be torn down and rebuilt three times and the house still hasn’t been framed, the homeowners are likely to show less patience and be far less forgiving with the new contractor.
After five years they want to move in. Now.
Such is the case with Tennessee football.
Fans who followed the caravan and saw Jones in spring practice are thrilled by his energy and enthusiasm, and they love the things he is saying. But words don’t win football games, and at Tennessee, after Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, winning early and often is all that matters.
The problem is that transitions are rarely as seamless as everyone hopes. Jones comes in with impressive credentials: winning the MAC at Central Michigan in his first season and the Big East in his second season at Cincinnati. But in both those instances he followed the highly-successful Brian Kelly, who led Notre Dame to the BCS title game last season. This time he is following Dooley, who went 15-21 and ended his tenure with the most embarrassing loss in Tennessee football history, a 41-18 drubbing by Vanderbilt.
Another worry is that Jones didn’t get in quickly enough to sign a bumper crop of superstar recruits. Out of 23 players Jones signed to come to Knoxville, only four were rated as four-star or higher. Plus, eight players from Dooley’s disappointing 2012 team will be suiting up on Sunday in the NFL, including wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, running back Mychal Rivera and quarterback Tyler Bray, an undrafted free agent signed by the Kansas City Chiefs.
There are some positive glimmers, though.
Jones will have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC and late signees Marquez North, a big, fast wide receiver from Charlotte, N.C., and pro-style quarterback Joshua Dobbs from Alpharetta, Ga., could become impact players early. At least that is the hope for a team that needs a few pleasant surprises.
Still, impatient Vols fans aren’t likely to see the progress they want.
Road trips to Oregon, Florida and Alabama would be difficult with the best teams Tennessee has fielded in decades. Given the loss of a starting quarterback and the bulk of the receiving corps, and the fact that the Vols had the SEC’s worst defense in 2012, those games, as well as home matchups against Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, would be considered upset wins. It’s easy to speculate that Jones might finish his first year the way Dooley finished his last.
If that turns out to be the case, the blame can’t be laid on Jones. To use his metaphor, he inherited a house built on a wobbly foundation. But at some point fans assign blame to the person nearest to the problem.
In Jones’ case, he better hope that the bricks he is laying one by one don’t end up being thrown through his window.