Don’t waste time seeking the “Ah-ha!” moment.
Borrow instead from the book of cliches that define a tenure as much as blowout-losses, marginal on-field progress, remarkable off-field progress and flat-out too much drama and not enough winning.
Butch Jones’ reign atop the University of Tennessee football program is over; he exits Rocky Top with a bumpy 34-27 ledger as the Vols’ head coach. He leaves, when his collections expire in a few years, nabbing approximately $26 million in salary and bonuses from Tennessee’s coffers — an nauseating tally of roughly $765,000 per win.
Jones’ tenure is over because, week by week, Volunteers’ football with Jones at the helm kept becoming a rapidly declining investment.
Or, back to that book of cliches, what goes around comes around. Conversations with five former Jones’ staffers on Sunday carry the same characteristic: Jones got what was coming to him.
Approximately 40 scholarship players are not around this Tennessee football program any longer after transferring to escape Jones’ temperamental and at times subversive tactics.
Just this season, two players are coping with physical and mental maladies the result of their teammates’ blows. Trey Smith is a few games from becoming surely a consensus Freshman All-America pick and likely All-SEC selection; he’s just a few games removed from surgery on his face to close up the cleat-gash from a teammate.
Shy Tuttle, likewise, is far too agile to be the guy Jones lied about by saying, “he fell on a helmet, and that’s the truth.” Tuttle’s eye is just now finishing healing from an altercation with a teammate as well.
Jones’ hires in recent years to key positions — especially that of strength and conditioning upon running off Dave Lawson and nutrition following the similar chase-off of Allison Maurer — are bedrock moves in his program’s crumbling foundation. Similarly, Jones couldn’t get along with his former VFL Coordinator, Antone Davis, a Tennessee legend, former All-American and first-round pick whose resignation due to a “hostile work environment from the head coach” isn’t yet two weeks old.
Nothing is worse than his decision to eschew several highly qualified offensive minds in order to promote Larry Scott from within to be his offensive coordinator this season — or for Jones’ final 10 games as Tennessee coach as it is. Scott’s very relatable to his players and an excellent recruiter; he is woefully overmatched in the rugged Southeastern Conference, where Tennessee resides near the league’s and nation’s bottom in all major offensive rankings among Power-5 schools.
Still, these obstacles are surmountable with equity and victories; Jones holds too little of both. There is no significant “ahead-of-the-curve” moment in his Tennessee history. A nice win against South Carolina in Year 1; come-from-ahead losses to Florida in Years 2 and 3, not to mention similar meltdowns against Arkansas and Oklahoma — three of those four games inside hallowed Neyland Stadium, no less — along the way.
Six players from last year’s 9-4 squad own distinction as the latest batch of Vols’ NFL Draft picks, prospects largely recruited or retained by Jones upon his arrival. Yet they own no hardware of significance — not at a place like Tennessee, which despite Jones’ rash of losses across the past season-and-a-half — 8-10 in his final 18 games, a losing streak to the last 11 SEC teams he’s faced — still rests among the nation’s 10-winningest programs all-time.
There isn’t just one element or event to signal the overdue end of the Butch Jones tenure at the University of Tennessee; there almost are too many to count.
It comes, however, better late than never.
So, I guess all’s well that ends well?
Time will tell.
John Currie kept quiet in recent weeks, to the chagrin of fans and reporters alike, but make no mistake: Currie is weeks into his quest to find the person who will define his professional career. Yes, define his career; not merely at Tennessee but as an athletics administrator.
Sources across the past six weeks consistently tell me that Currie’s path to the future of the Vols’ football program stretches to the week following the Georgia game, when Bulldogs’ second-year coach Kirby Smart got another of those “ahead-of-the-curve” wins by whitewashing the Vols, 41-0, inside Neyland Stadium.
The overtures to Jon Gruden, a Super Bowl champion coach, the NFL’s most recognizable broadcast voice and one-time UT assistant coach in the 1980s, are very real and much further along than at any point in any of Tennessee’s previous courtships to the mega-star football mind.
Six different sources, ranging from current coaches to former all-time great Vols to college administrators, in the past 72-96 hours tell me that Gruden is far more seriously considering this Tennessee offer than ever before; so much so that Gruden is making some preliminary calls to coaches and other college athletics folks about potentially joining him in Knoxville.
Money is no issue; Currie very deliberately and wisely is the man behind this statement from Sunday’s press conference.
The roster, while in dire need of work, remains better than Jones’ arrival in December 2012. Credit Jones and the relentless work of the behind-the-scenes folks, as well Robert Gillespie most notably from the staff.
Academics, thanks to arguably the greatest director of student-athlete learning protocols anywhere in college athletics in UT’s Dr. Joe Scogin, owns the incredibly stable ground that Jones’ program otherwise lacks.
Too, do not ignore that Tennessee as a state is producing more talent than ever before — high-end talent, as just this past Saturday one-time Vols commitments Alontae Taylor and Cade Mays were Ohio State’s guests at the Buckeyes’ romp past Michigan State. OSU likewise has commitments from two of the Volunteer State’s best in running back Master Teague and offensive lineman Max Wray. Jackson Lampley and Trey Knox are just a couple of the state’s national recruits in upcoming classes.
Ultimately Gruden must not only choose to say yes but sign his name to a contract that makes it official. Next weekend he is allegedly on the verge of his third trip to Knoxville within the past few weeks in between his Monday Night Football obligations for ESPN, which pays Gruden approximately $6 million annually as its top NFL on-air personality.
It remains a situation that must be seen to be believed, but, if this was Santa Claus and his plate of chimney-side cookies, well, someone’s at least taken a drink of the milk.
If Gruden again rebuffs Tennessee’s advances, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Central Florida’s Scott Frost emerge as two of the Vols’ likely top targets. Currie’s work in recent weeks includes extensive research on both candidates. Frost, like Chip Kelly, is on Florida’s very short list.
Oregon’s Willie Taggert and Memphis’ Mike Norvell are a couple of other names worth monitoring; similarly, pay attention to Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. His work both as a recruiter and defensive whiz has few parallels while my sources around the SEC insist Pruitt is on track to become a “big-time head coach, sooner than later.”