Tennessee fans staying patient as Jones shows promise

HOOVER, Ala. – Like most Southeastern Conference college football programs, there is storied tradition based on decades of success at the University of Tennessee.

One recent trend Volunteers fans don’t want to see become standard operating procedure, though, is the revolving door of head coaches that now has the team being led by four coaches the past six years.

Included in the swoon that has produced three-straight losing seasons — the Vols’ first such dip during an SEC era that began in 1933 — are three head coaches who confidently espoused their plans for success at Tennessee while undertaking their initial SEC Media Days experience. Here Wednesday, it was new Vols coach Butch Jones’ turn to perform the dog-and-pony show in front of some 1,200 media members. While the former Cincinnati and Central Michigan headman has yet to coach a game at UT, he seemingly has hit all the marks squarely on target while rallying the once-proud troops of a wins-starved fanbase eager to return to the league’s elite.

And if you’re among the SEC’s best, then you are a legitimate national championship contender, just like Tennessee once was when it won it all back in 1998.

“We talked about building a championship culture, working to get Tennessee football back to its rightful place among the elite of college football,” said Jones, who takes over in Knoxville following the failed three-year tenure of Derek Dooley, who won only two SEC games the past two seasons.

“We talked about doing that brick by brick,” Jones added. “That’s not a fancy slogan. We really meant that as every brick is symbolic of every individual in our football family and our football organization. It’s having clearly defined and articulated standards, expectations and values that are going to guide you on a day-to-day basis.”

Since being hired on Dec. 7, Jones has hit the ground running. First order of business was re-engaging former Volunteers players, who had been disenfranchised from the program during Dooley’s three seasons and the one coached by Lane Kiffin in 2009 before he bolted to Southern Cal.

Included in the embrace of Tennessee’s past that features 13 SEC championships and 320 league victories — trailing only Alabama’s 23 and 376, respectively — was reconnecting the program with former coaches Phillip Fulmer, Johnny Majors and Doug Dickey, a former UT athletic director. And, of course, there is the sincere acknowledgement of legendary former coach Gen. Robert Neyland, who guided the Vols to their first consensus national title in 1951 after winning various other ones in 1938 and 1940.

“We developed great relationships with Coach Majors, Coach Fulmer, and they’ve been great,” Jones said. “They’re the ones who really laid the foundation. You look at our tradition, Gen. Neyland, so on and so forth, moving on. They’ve been a great resource for me.

“I’ll tell you this, I’ve taken great advantage of speaking with them and building those relationships.”

In other words, Jones gets what it means to be head football coach at Tennessee, unlike Dooley, who always seemed overwhelmed by the job; and Kiffin, who took the first thing smoking out of town as soon as Southern Cal, his espoused dream job, came calling.

Granted, there are still Vols fans who lament Majors ever being fired for Fulmer to take over in 1993. And there are just as many who still can’t figure out why Fulmer was fired in 2008. They figured the favorite son had built enough equity, especially considering the 1998 national championship, to weather the storm of a dip that all SEC teams go through from time to time.

It is now apparent that Jones has found his own dream job, one in which he enters well-prepared following three winning seasons at Cincinnati.

Ultimately, it will come down to wins and losses. It always does for coaches in the SEC, which has churned out the past seven BCS champions. But there seems to be a calming presence of patience among Volunteers fans, who have been re-energized what they have seen of their new head coach thus far.

Then again, there are victories that can come along the way for a program other than those on the gridiron. And in the every day world of SEC football, that is often measured in recruiting, where Jones has and continues to knock it out of the park.

For the incoming class, Jones closed strong to pick up a pair of much-needed talented receivers in MarQuez North of Charlotte, N.C., and Ryan Jenkins of Marietta, Ga. And defensive end Jason Carr out of Memphis rebuked Alabama’s advances to become a Vol. 

But it is the current recruiting haul for the incoming 2014 class that has Vols fans frothing. Thus far, UT’s class of 20 commitments is ranked best in the country by Scout.com. Much of that is because half of those are of the four-star variety, including Beech (Tenn.) High’s Jalen Hurd, the No. 7-ranked running back in the country.

All of that has Volunteers fans excited, but they can also peruse the 2013 roster and be realistic about a team with no experience at quarterback, very few offensive playmakers on the outside and a defense that can only improve after being ranked last in the SEC last in scoring defense (35.7 points per game) and total defense (471.3 yards per game).

Will Tennessee break the string of three-straight losing seasons and earn its first bowl berth since 2010? That would be quite a year’s worth of work for Jones and staff in what is accurately labeled rebuilding mode for the Volunteers.

Then again, Jones has made it work every step of the way thus far.