Tennessee has announced Butch Jones’ departure, and it seems like it happened at just the right time.
I passively browsed and “liked” tweets dating back as far as the Florida game asking whether it was the last time Coach Jones had coached a Tennessee football game. It happened every week. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama…everyone lost their minds as the Vols’ losing streak grew longer and longer.
It appears the loss to Missouri was the straw that broke the camel's back, but I think it may have been the loss to Kentucky when we knew his fate was sealed.
You don’t lose to Kentucky at Tennessee. It was the beginning of the end for Derek Dooley in 2011. It was all Athletic Director John Currie needed to pull the plug on the Coach Jones Era.
He’ll leave Knoxville with a 34-27 record and a 14-24 conference record that has seen him lose seven SEC games in a row. I reckon a decent part of Vol Nation is happy to see the administration make a change; others might be skeptical of hiring a fourth head coach in ten seasons.
I wonder, what will Coach Jones’ legacy be at UT, say, five or ten years down the road?
Let’s dive in to where he fits in Tennessee history.
The 23rd head football coach in program history, Jones leaves with a .557 winning percentage, good for 14th among his predecessors and seventh among those who coached 50 or more games. In the modern era of football (1950 to present), that puts Coach Jones distantly behind Kingston native Bowden Wyatt (49-29 overall, .622 winning percentage.) After Wyatt are the usual suspects – in ascending order - Johnny Majors, Bill Battle, Doug Dickey, Phillip Fulmer, and Robert Neyland. Jones’ record also puts him slightly above Lane Kiffin (7-6, .538 in one season) in the all-time ranks.
After Jones and Kiffin, none of the Vols’ head coaches have winning records; and none of them coached more than 36 games.
And that is exactly the problem.
Vol fans watched Jones coach a team to so-so results for much longer than they’re used to.
For a football program that boasted stability in the head coach’s office from 1970 to 2007, Tennessee offered Jones a lot of leeway.
He earned part of that leeway; UT gave him the task of rebuilding the program “brick by brick” and returning the program to national relevance. We saw the fruits of Jones’ labor in early 2016, when the Vols were a Top-10 team and boasted a 5-0 record to start that campaign.
Unfortunately, things have spiraled downwards since the Hail Mary Between the Hedges. Call it what you want – bad luck, regression to the mean, poetic justice – the Vols have posted a 8-10 record since then. They’ve lost seven conference games in a row.
What was left of Jones’ reputation and positive influence on UT football unraveled in the final weeks of his time on Rocky Top.
Jones showed a propensity for telling wishy-washy stories about his team that didn’t add up – some might simply call it “lying” - whether it was Shy Tuttle’s injury, Quinten Dormady’s injury, or making no mention of John Kelly’s status in his Wednesday news conference after the star running back was cited for marijuana possession.
Vol fans grew apathetic; they wanted Coach Jones out, and they wanted him out now.
Ten years from now, when the program hopefully is in a better place, I think fans will look back on this time fondly and remember Butch Jones as a good coach.
I didn’t say “a great coach.” I didn’t say “a very good coach.” I think he’ll be remembered as, simply, good.
Good, just not good enough.
He brought winning football back to Tennessee. He convinced some high-profile recruits to come to Tennessee. Some worked out, some didn’t. He rebuilt a program that lacked impact talent and led the team to its hottest start in a season since 1998. He installed a culture in which players (mostly) avoided legal problems, and succeeded in the classroom. He brought in a few coaches who were lauded for their work, like running backs coach Robert Gillespie.
His time at Tennessee didn’t end well – that’s how most coaches get fired, you know – but so many factors went in to the Vols’ lackluster performance in 2017. The Vols’ depth chart looked more like a war of attrition these last two seasons, with names dropping every week due to injury, suspension and departure – Chance Hall, Shy Tuttle, Darrin Kirkland, Todd Kelly, Danny O’Brien, Jalen Hurd, Preston Williams, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Austin Smith, Cam Sutton, Jauan Jennings, Josh Smith, Quart’e Sapp, Kahlil McKenzie, Jack Jones and Jashon Robertson to name a few - all missing significant time for one reason or another.
No, they weren’t well-coached. The red zone offense was anemic; pre-snap penalties and holding penalties mounted every time the Vols were ready to break out and score; the defense caved in to exhaustion after two-to-three full quarters on the team against its toughest rivals.
But Jones recruited well, got Tennessee back to playing winning football, and not far off from reaching elite status once again. He left the program better than he found it. He could only lead the Vols so far; someone else will finish the job he started.
It’s good that Coach Jones and Tennessee are parting ways. John Currie and the administration now set their sights on finding an elite coach who can restore the program to its former glory. But, we should take into consideration all the good (and bad) that happened on Rocky Top in the Butch Jones Era.
I think Coach Jones was good, just not good enough for Tennessee.
What do you think?