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Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

When did it all go wrong? A look back at Butch Jones’ 5 seasons as Vols head coach

Butch Jones, left, on Dec. 7, 2012, the day he was hired, with Dave Hart, the school’s athletic director at the time. Jones replaced Derek Dooley, who was fired after posting a record of 15-21 in three seasons. Jones’ record is 33-25, including a 3-4 mark this season. He has posted back-to-back 9-4 seasons, and could match that if the Vols were to win out in the regular season and pick up another bowl win. - File | AP Photo/Wade Payne

Butch Jones was introduced as Tennessee’s football coach along with his family to media, donors and fans on Dec. 7, 2012 by former UT athletic director Dave Hart.

After Jones introduced his wife, Barb, and their three sons, Alex, Adam and Andrew, Hart took the microphone for another introduction of Jones.

Looking back, Hart’s remarks are telling.

“Without much fanfare or people offering opinions, we moved through the (coaching) search to a conclusion,” Hart said. “Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be. Life doesn’t always throw us fastballs. It throws us curves, then it throws some screwballs. I’m not referencing anybody here. You have to be able to adjust.”

Five years later, Hart is gone, and Tennessee football is back to adjusting under new athletic director John Currie.

Jones is on the firing line. His comments during the introductory press conference never panned out.

“Thank you, Dave, for everything and giving me this wonderful opportunity to lead the best college football program in America,” Jones said. “I truly believe that. We’re going to do some very special things.”

Jones is 33-25 overall and 14-22 in SEC games during his five seasons as the Vols coach after Saturday’s 45-7 loss at Alabama.

UT (3-4, 0-4 SEC) must win out and win a bowl game to match its 2015 and 2016 records (9-4). Perhaps that could save Jones’ job.

Jones inherited a mess former UT coaches Lane Kiffin (2009) and Derek Dooley (2010-12) created, but he’s had time to fix it.

So, another coaching search has probably already begun. Big Orange Nation better hope this one goes better than the last three.

Jones wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice when Dooley was on his way to getting fired during his 5-7 season in 2012. Jon Gruden was the popular choice. The former college assistant, NFL head coach and current television analyst was the frontrunner when Dooley was fired after a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville in 2012.

Tennessee fans were fired up about Gruden – until Hart announced later that November he’d contacted Gruden about the job but Gruden wasn’t interested.

UT’s next choice was Charlie Strong, a highly successful defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida who was in the midst of leading Louisville to a 12-2 record, a share of the Big East Championship and a victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Hart made an offer to Strong, who turned it down and went to Texas in 2014.While courting Strong, Hart also was courting Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. Strong declined, then so did Gundy, who parlayed the UT offer into a bigger contract at Oklahoma State.

Where are they now?

Gruden is still an NFL analyst for ESPN and Monday Night Football and is the network’s highest-paid on-air personality at a reported salary of $6.5 million a year, author and ESPN watcher James Andrew Miller reported in 2016. He probably won’t ever leave TV.

Strong was fired by Texas after three years and three weeks later was hired by the University of South Florida. USF is 7-0 after last Saturday’s 34-28 victory over Tulane.

Gundy remains at Oklahoma State, which was ranked No. 10 last week. The Cowboys (5-1) beat to Texas 13-10 last Saturday.

And Butch Jones is here. For now.

Jones was a winning head coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but inherited successful programs built by Brian Kelly at both of those places.

Kelly has been Notre Dame’s coach since 2009, when former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton (Hart’s predecessor) passed on Kelly and chose Kiffin.

Kelly is a popular choice for UT fans to replace Jones, but would he leave Notre Dame for Tennessee? Probably not. Notre Dame (6-1) and ranked No. 13 going into Saturday’s 49-14 win against No. 11 USC.

Currie has a tough job ahead. Getting a top-notch coach isn’t easy. Look at Tennessee’s last searches.

As for Butch Jones, where did his plans go awry at Tennessee? Let’s take a look.


RECORD: 5-7, 2-6 SEC (sixth)

After being hired in early December of 2012, Jones assembled a staff composed mostly of coaches with ties to Jones from his days as head coach at Central Michigan (2007-09) and Cincinnati (2010-12). Those assistants included Steve Stripling, Mike Bajakian, John Jancek, Zach Azzanni, Mark Elder, Don Mahoney and Dave Lawson (strength coach).

Assistants hired without previous ties to Jones were Robert Gillespie and Tommy Thigpen. Jones also hired Willie Martinez, who was on staff with Jones at Central Michigan as assistants from 1998-2000.

Only two of Jones’ assistants from the 2013 staff, Gillespie and Thigpen, remain as assistant coaches on the 2017 staff, although Stripling has an administrative position with the football program.

Jones was able to salvage a 2013 class that ranked No. 24 in the nation and 10th in the SEC by 247Sports’ composite rankings.

The 2013 class of 23 included quarterback Joshua Dobbs, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton and safety Malik Foreman. All are now playing for NFL teams. Defensive lineman Corey Vereen was signed by the New England Patriots this year but released.

Three of the Jones’ 2013 signees, offensive lineman Brett Kendrick, defensive lineman Kendal Vickers and receiver Josh Smith, are fifth-year seniors still playing for the Vols.

However, of the 23 signees in the 2013 class, only 10 were still on the roster for the 2016 season.

As expected, Jones’ first UT team had its struggles after starting 2-0 with victories over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky.

Dobbs, however, was an impact player late in the season. He became the starting quarterback two series into the Oct. 26 loss to Alabama when Justin Worley was injured. Dobbs started the last four games and went 1-3 with losses to Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt, and a victory over Kentucky in the regular-season finale.


RECORD: 7-6, 3-5 SEC (t-fourth)

Soon, UT fans became accustomed to Jones and his mottos and catch phrases. The 2014 season was “Brick by Brick,” which was emblazoned on the 2014 media guide.

Before it was printed, Jones made a recruiting splash. His 2014 class was rated No. 7 nationally and fifth in the SEC by 247Sports and included six “Legacy” recruits, players whose fathers, brother or uncle played for Tennessee.

Of the 32 players from the 2014 class, 12 were no longer on the roster by 2016. (Three JUCO signees exhausted eligibility).

Several are seniors for the Vols this year, including safety Todd Kelly Jr. (injured), safety/linebacker Dillon Bates, linebacker Cortez McDowell (injured), safety Evan Berry, linebacker Elliott Berry, tight end Ethan Wolf, offensive lineman Jashon Robertson, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, and place-kicker Aaron Medley (out with mononucleosis).

Wide receiver Josh Malone and defensive end Derek Barnett were 2014 signees and are playing in the NFL this year. Another 2014 signee, Jalen Hurd of Beech High in Hendersonville, quit the Vols midway through the 2016 season (he’s since transferred to Baylor).

Jones kept his staff of assistants intact for the second season, but once the “Brick-by-Brick” season started, Tennessee’s coaches had a quarterback controversy.

Worley, who started seven games before the injury in 2013, was announced as the 2014 starter in mid-August, winning the job over Dobbs and Nathan Peterman, both sophomores who continued competing for the backup’s job. Peterman transferred to Pitt after the 2014 season and is now on the Buffalo Bills roster.

Worley went 3-4, 0-3 in the SEC as the starter, but was out for the Oct. 25 Alabama game with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that ended his career.

Then Peterman got the start against Alabama and was pulled after two series. Enter Dobbs. UT was down 27-0 in the second quarter, and with Dobbs at quarterback, rallied for 17 consecutive points before losing 34-20.

Dobbs was the starter the next week at South Carolina when the Vols rallied from a 14-point deficit with 5 minutes left and won 45-42 in overtime.

With Dobbs starting the rest of the season, UT became bowl eligible with a Nov. 29 win over Vanderbilt (24-17) in its final regular-season game, then posted a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Jones “Brick-by-Brick” rebuild was still in place as the Vols posted their first winning season since Kiffin’s 2009 team went 7-6.


RECORD: 9-4, 5-3 SEC (t-second, three-way)

Jones again gained steam on the recruiting trail. His 2015 class of 30 recruits was ranked fourth in the nation and second in the SEC by 247Sports.

The class included Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips, Alvin Kamara, Drew Richmond, Jack Jones, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Jauan Jennings, John Kelly, Chance Hall and four-star quarterback Quinten Dormady of Boerne (Texas) High. Eight of the 2015 signees didn’t finish their second season.

When offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian left UT to become quarterback coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs in January of 2015, Jones hired former Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to fill the position. DeBord, a former NFL assistant, had been serving an administrative role at Michigan when hired by Jones

There was optimism that Tennessee – dubbed Team #120 by Jones for its 120th year of football – could make a run at the weakened SEC East. Tennessee was picked to finished second in the East at SEC Media Days and got 36 first-place votes, behind only Georgia (166 first-place votes) and ahead of Missouri (20), South Carolina (1), Florida (1) and Kentucky (1).

UT was ranked No. 25 starting the season and opened with a 59-30 win over Bowling Green in Nissan Stadium in Nashville, but by the midway point of the season, the Vols were all but out of the SEC East race. A 19-14 loss at Alabama on Oct. 24 left UT 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the SEC with other losses to Florida and Arkansas and a win against Georgia.

With Dobbs leading the way, Tennessee reeled off five consecutive victories as the 2015 schedule got lighter, then beat Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl with Hurd earning MVP honors.

Once again, Team #120 had Big Orange fans all on board with Jones at the conclusion of the 2015 season and a bowl win.


RECORD: 9-4, 4-4 SEC (t-second)

This was supposed to be Tennessee’s year.

Jones had two years of full, strong recruiting classes, and his 2016 class of 23 recruits was ranked 14th nationally and seventh in the SEC by 247Sports. Many of the newcomers were expected to be impact players – among them Nigel Warrior, Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway and Alexis Johnson. Plus, Jones signed a quarterback for the post-Dobbs’ era, Jarrett Guarantano of Oradell, New Jersey, one of the nation’s top-rated dual-threat quarterbacks.

Not only were Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara returning, DeBord had a year of calling the offense under his belt. And Jones made a big coaching change for the defense, firing his longtime assistant, defensive coordinator Jancek, and hiring Bob Shoop from Penn State.

Tennessee returned five second- or third-team All-SEC players from the 2015 team: kick returner Evan Berry, Barnett at defensive end, Dylan Wiesman on the offensive line, Hurd at running back, and Reeves-Maybin at linebacker.

The Vols were picked to win the East at SEC Media Days, getting 225 first-place votes, ahead of Florida (57) and Georgia (45).

But there were signs of trouble from the start of the season.

In the opener against Appalachian State, the No. 9-ranked Vols needed a fourth-quarter TD pass from Dobbs to Malone, and Hurd’s fumble recovery in overtime, to post a 20-13 victory.

Then the “Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol.” No. 17 Tennessee spotted Virginia Tech a 14-0 lead, scored the next 31 points, and coasted to a 45-24 win.

In Game 3, UT’s lead against Ohio slipped to 21-19 after three quarters, and the No. 15 Vols pulled out a 28-19 victory. However, UT suffered significant injuries when Reeves-Maybin sustained a season-ending shoulder injury and Sutton broke a bone in his ankle, which put him out for the next six games.

Jones reached a peak of his Tennessee career the next two games. The No. 14 Vols scored 38 consecutive points and beat Florida 38-28 – snapping an 11-game losing streak to the Gators – followed by a 34-31 victory at Georgia on Dobbs’ Hail Mary TD pass to Jennings on the game’s last play.

All was right as the Vols (5-0, 2-0 SEC) entered the meat of its league schedule.

Then the 2016 downfall. UT was still in the hunt for the SEC East title after back-to-back losses to Texas A&M (45-38) and Alabama (49-10) going into the Oct. 29 game at South Carolina.

It proved a pivotal game for Jones and the Vols, who were without Kamara with a knee injury sustained in the Alabama loss.

Dobbs had his worst game and South Carolina beat No. 18 Tennessee 24-21. There was more trouble when the Vols got back to Knoxville. Jones announced during his Monday press conference Hurd was transferring, and Jones then had a testy exchange with a female reporter.

Tennessee still had a chance to win the SEC East going into the Nov. 19 Missouri game, but needed Florida to lose to LSU. When Florida clinched a 16-10 victory with a goal-line fans stand, UT fans had a mass exodus from Neyland Stadium in another defining moment of the Butch Jones era.

After giving up 741 yards against Missouri, Tennessee gave up 608 the next week in a 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. The loss cost Tennessee a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Instead, the Vols accepted a bid to the Music City Bowl in Nashville and beat Nebraska 38-24.

Jones trumpeted back-to-back nine-win seasons and three consecutive bowl victories as progress for the program, but many fans, local and national media weren’t buying it. And Jones was ridiculed for saying the Vols won “the championship of life” after finishing the regular season 8-4.

For a second consecutive year, UT failed to win a weak East and reach the SEC championship game for the first time since 2007. Even worse, when favored to win the East.


RECORD: 3-4, 0-4 SEC (tied-last)

Jones made major changes in his coaching staff.

DeBord left Tennessee and became offensive coordinator at Indiana. Azzanni left to be the Chicago Bears’ receivers coach. DeBord was replaced by Larry Scott, the former interim head coach at Miami (2015), promoted by Jones from tight ends coach to coordinator. Shoop, whose defense failed miserably the second half of 2016, remained as coordinator.

Jones brought in four other new assistants (Brady Hoke, Charlton Warren, Mike Canales, and Kevin Beard), and hired former NFL strength coach Rock Gullickson as strength and conditioning coach.

Jones praised his new staff going into spring practice and into summer, in particular Gullickson. The strength and conditioning program has been an issue since 2015, when Jones’ relationship with Lawson soured. After the 2015 season, Lawson began working with other UT sports programs before parting ways with UT in April of 2016.

The Vols spent the 2016 season with associate strength coach Michael Szerszen handling Lawson’s duties, but with no director of the program, UT’s problems started early in the season. Injuries mounted quickly. UT had at least 10 key players miss significant time during the 2016 season.

Gullickson’s hiring, nor the new staff, have been up to their billing this year. Nor have the highly-touted recruiting classes the past couple years.

UT went into fall camp with Dormady and Guarantano contending for the quarterback job. Dormady started the first five games before being replaced by Guarantano for South Carolina and Alabama.

Jones clearly didn’t have a quarterback ready to replace Dobbs.

Injuries have continued this year, just like 2016. Five starters are out for the season. Several other starters and backups have missed time due to injuries.

UT’s game-experienced offensive line was expected to be a strength this year. Hasn’t happened. Jennings was the best receiver; nobody has emerged in his absence.

Shoop’s defense has been OK at times, but gets shredded by the run game when stranded on-field by the poor offense. UT was 116th in the nation and 13th in the SEC in total offense (320 yards per game) going into the Alabama game; UT’s run defense was 122nd and last in the SEC (242.8).

Tennessee had seven first downs and 108 total yards against Alabama. The Tide had 35 first downs and 604 total yards.

Questions abound about UT’s play-calling. Especially in the 15-9 loss to South Carolina. You could blame Scott for the play-calling, but at some point, Jones takes the blame. It’s Jones’ fault for poor clock management.

More questions with Jones. How do the Vols come out flat against UMass at Neyland Stadium? Or worse, flat against South Carolina at Neyland Stadium with two weeks to prepare?

Also, is it normal for Vols to fight in practice? Some former UT players defend the in-house fighting, but it also points to division in the locker room.

Another one: Jones started 2017 with a new motto: “D.A.T.” It’s an acronym for “Details, Accountability and Toughness.” Where was it when Rashaan Gaulden gave Alabama fans the double bird after Daniel Bituli’s interception return for a TD last Saturday? Gaulden apologized after the game. Is that accountability?

Player development and retention is also a question with Jones. Why can’t you win a weak East Division with those recruiting classes? Then again, Tennessee had six players chosen in the first four rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, including first-rounder Barnett.

Which brings up a big question with Jones. With all those NFL players, why didn’t Tennessee win the East in 2016?

Currie probably wondered the same while putting together his short list.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.