HOOVER, Ala. — The basement in Butch Jones' home is where you'll find his personal trophy case, a glass-encased collection of the various rings, mementos, souvenirs and keepsakes accumulated during the course of a seven-year coaching career.
It includes no major hardware from Jones' single season at Tennessee, which ended with the program's fifth losing season in six years; it does, however, with its glittering markers of past successes, serve as a painful reminder of just how long it's been since Tennessee's name resonated on a national scale.
Tennessee has four losing seasons in a row, the program's longest such streak since 1903-6. The Volunteers are 33-41 since the start of the 2008 season, the second-worst record in the Southeastern Conference, and have just 15 wins during the last three years – in comparison, long-suffering Vanderbilt has 16 wins in its last 20 games.
No member of this year's roster has even experienced the postseason, Jones said, which explains why several Tennessee players given a tour of his trophy case had a simple question: Do we get rings and watches for going to a bowl game?
Yes, these are the dark days of Tennessee football, that once-proud program struggling and suffering through the sourest period in its history. Jones carries none of the blame for the Volunteers' decline, but he shoulders the weight of increasingly desperate expectations.
"It's all of our responsibilities to get Tennessee football back," Jones said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be one step at a time, that's the way it's going to be. If you look at it through and through, there are no quick fixes."
If the on-field losses have continued to mount, Jones and Tennessee have won meaningful battles against national powers on the recruiting trail. Last year's class, his first full group, ranked fifth nationally, according to the recruiting site Rivals.com. This current class, 20 recruits strong – the fourth-most in the country – is also ranked fifth, and could finish in the top three with a strong close.
But a rebuilding project that demands the utmost patience meets a coach and staff motivated to change directions immediately.
"I always say there's no one more impatient than myself and my staff," he said. "But you have to sit back and you have to embrace the process, and you have to focus on the process. We can't focus on the end result right now."
Jones' process is stymied, and very much defined, by overwhelming youth. Tennessee is more than young – the Volunteers are the youngest, least-tested team in the SEC, a conference long unfriendly to those would-be contenders short on the experience needed to navigate its way through the roughest league in college football.
More than half of the current roster joined the program since Jones' arrival. Fourteen recruits in February's signing class enrolled early, most on the offensive side of the ball, and another 18 will join the mix for fall camp. By the end of spring drills, 13 of those 14 early enrollees had earned spots on Tennessee's two-deep depth chart.
"It's the realities of building a football program right now, but to me it's exhilarating," Jones said. "You know, it's exciting. The way we look at it, this team is going to be intact for a number of years."
This year, the Volunteers will have entirely brand-new starting lineups on both the offensive and defensive lines, an overriding concern for a team that plays Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida during its first five games of the regular season. The quarterback position remains up for grabs, though Jones is leaning toward senior Justin Worley.
A true freshman and junior-college transfer should start at receiver. A true freshman, Coleman Thomas, will start at right tackle. A sophomore and a true freshman will start at cornerback. Come August, when the Volunteers report for fall camp, Jones will have less than a month to sew together a cohesive unit.
"I think it's one day at a time," linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "We need to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, one practice at a time, and look at the long run. Just one day at a time."
The result of this step-by-step mindset – promoted by Jones – is a slightly lowered standard for success. The team is "shooting for a bowl game" in 2014, offensive lineman Mack Crowder said, and that'd be a surprising viewpoint if not for two simple facts: Tennessee hasn't reached the postseason since 2010, Derek Dooley's first season, and hasn't finished with a winning record since 2009.
Yet the road out of the wilderness seems clear: Tennessee has accumulated the baseline of talent needed to break into the SEC and national conversation; Jones and this staff simply need to get this group up to speed, taking two steps forward for every single step back – and that's a multiple-year project, not a one-year quick fix.
"Tennessee's a special place," Jones said. "Tennessee can only be down for so long. Everything in life is about timing. Right place, right time. And this is the right place at the right time for Tennessee football. Because it's a matter of time."
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