Jones embraces Rocky Top challenge

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
5:51
PM ET

Tennessee’s beleaguered fan base started evaluating Butch Jones as soon as he became the Vols’ newest target, following two very public turndowns on Wednesday.

Louisville’s Charlie Strong and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy both said "thanks, but no thanks," and Tennessee’s focus quickly shifted to Jones.

It’s not the way anybody would draw up a coach search, and there was certainly some embarrassment along the way for a proud program suddenly being dubbed as “Turndown Tennessee.”

But at the end of the day, the finer details won’t matter a whole lot three years from now.

All that will matter is whether Jones can return Tennessee to prominence.

“Our fan base and myself have the same expectations,” said Jones, who was introduced Friday as Tennessee’s new coach. “We’re working to be the best. We’re working to be No. 1 every day. We’re working to be national champions. We’re working to be SEC champions. Here’s the thing: This program has done it and will do it again.”

Jones, who’s won four league championships in six years as a head coach, shrugged off the fact that he wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice.

“I think I was my wife’s third choice, and it’s worked out for 20 years,” he quipped.

Similarly, he downplayed the fact that he doesn’t have any previous SEC experience.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Frank Victores/USA TODAY Sports"I will be the first to tell you that Nick Saban and Les Miles had zero SEC experience when they came into the league," Butch Jones said.
“I will be the first to tell you that Nick Saban and Les Miles had zero SEC experience when they came into the league,” Jones said, and then paused. “So that’s all I will say there.”

In other words, he wasn’t going down the same path as Lane Kiffin back in 2009 when Kiffin chortled during his introductory press conference that he looked forward to “singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year.”

But Jones did vow to bring the Vols a winner, and he has a deep understanding of how hungry the Big Orange Nation is to be relevant again. It’s a program that has suffered through four losing seasons in the past five years, and Jones is the fourth head coach in the past six years.

“I know we live in an instant-gratification society and that everybody wants everything at once,” Jones said. “But I will tell you this: We are going inch by inch, and inches make a championship. We are going to go to work. I don’t know how long it will take, but you will be proud of this team and proud of this football program.”

Jones’ predecessor, Derek Dooley, got three years before he was shown the door. The Vols won exactly two SEC games over the past two seasons.

As fate would have it, in Dooley's time at Tennessee, the only FBS team the Vols beat that finished the season with a winning record was Jones’ Cincinnati Bearcats. That was two years ago.

So, yes, there will be doubters and skeptics.

“The only thing we can do is prove [that Jones is the right choice], and I look forward every day to proving it,” said Jones, who himself turned down jobs at Colorado and Purdue in the past couple of weeks before saying yes to Tennessee.

The best news for Tennessee fans is that Jones wants to be at Tennessee. There was obviously enough trepidation by Strong that he didn’t make the move, and several close to the situation never really believed that Gundy would leave his alma mater for Tennessee.

Jones, by contrast, wanted this job all along. He wanted the challenge of testing himself against the best college football has to offer.

“If you want to be the best, you want to compete in the best,” Jones said of the SEC.

And to do that, he’ll have to recruit at a level the Vols haven’t consistently achieved since Phillip Fulmer’s best years.

“Recruiting is selling. Recruiting is a people business,” said Jones, dismissing the notion that he’ll have a difficult transition to recruiting in the SEC. “If you’re a great recruiter, you can recruit anywhere because it’s all relationship-based.”

Chris Low | email

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