Judging from the ol’ MrSEC.com inbox, Tennessee fans aren’t a happy bunch this morning. Apparently landing Butch Jones from Cincinnati wasn’t the preferred option on Rocky Top. (Though in reality, we all know this is still part of the Vols’ master smokescreen and that Jon Gruden will be introduced any minute now.)
This week we’ve broken down the track records of the new SEC coaching hires who have actual head coaching experience to go on (sorry, Kentucky fans). We’ll do the same with Tennessee’s new hire now. And on paper, the hire is probably not as bad as the reaction Jones’ hiring is bringing.
Before we dive into a breakdown of Jones, let’s look at two things we got right yesterday. One, obviously as you saw here first, Jones was offered the job by Tennessee. Two, as we suggested yesterday, UT would panic. Turned down by Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong on Wednesday, the Vols raced to end their search Thursday night/Friday morning. In doing so they apparently passed up on reported interest from Nebraska’s Bo Pelini who has SEC experience, a better record in tougher conferences, and, yes, anger management issues (which might have hurt his chances with UT’s brass).
Why the rush? Because Tennessee — like many school’s athletic departments — worries too much about what’s being said in the media, on messageboards, and on sites like this. The discussion outside seeps in and influences the decisions inside. So when fanbases scream to get something done, donors scream, too. When donors scream, ADs jump.
Tennessee’s Dave Hart jumped at Jones, though his hurried move has certainly landed him someone with a better resume than Derek Dooley, the Vols’ last rushed hire.
A few notes on the Volunteers’ new head coach:
* Jones wanted the Tennessee job. The way things were going that in itself should be a plus for the UT faithful. But in this case, Jones really wanted the gig in Knoxville. This offseason Jones has reportedly been chased by Kentucky, Purdue and Colorado. He let it be known to Tennessee officials that he wanted the Vols’ position from the get-go. When Strong said “no, thanks” to UT on Wednesday, Jones let the Vols know once again of his interest. He also backed away from an offer at Colorado. Sports fans always claim that they want a coach “who wants to be here.” Well, Jones wants to be in Knoxville. And he turned down other opportunities in the hopes of landing in Knoxville. Three years ago, we don’t recall any other schools liking Dooley enough to make him offers pre-Tennessee.
* Much will be made of Jones’ head-to-head 45-23 loss to Dooley, arguably one of only two “good” wins during the Vols’ last coach’s tenure (the other being NC State this year, a team that also fired its coach). The trouble with gauging coaches on one game is, well, it’s stupid. To put this in perspective for Volunteer fans, should Tommy Bowden (Clemson), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Joe Glenn (Wyoming), or Rip Scherer (Memphis) have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this week ahead of Phillip Fulmer? Fulmer lost to all of those coaches. I think most UT fans would still agree that Fulmer was a better coach overall. By a hundred wins or so.
* Speaking of Fulmer, a number of former Volunteer coaches have been spreading the word to Knoxville media and fans that Tennessee’s academic standards have been raised to the point that UT’s coach is now at a disadvantage. (Funny, James Franklin doesn’t seem to be having much trouble with Vanderbilt’s academic standards.) Fulmer and Dooley have let it be known the Vols were having a hard time on the academic side of things. Several ex-Vol assistants have said the same thing, like Kevin Steele. Trouble is, Steele — who voiced the academic concerns to a Knoxville booster club this fall — was set to accept a spot as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator before giving up 70 points to West Virginia as Clemson’s D-coordinator last year. At that point his salary offer was snipped and he declined. So he has a bone to pick with UT. Ditto Fulmer and Dooley who were fired by the Vols. Fulmer was working the phones hard this week trying to shimmy his way back into his old job. The fact that Steele was ready to take the Tennessee coordinator spot before the salary cut and the fact that Fulmer was angling to get the head coaching job back sure seem strange considering how “tough” they’ve said Tennessee is academically.
* Don’t discount the Fulmer factor as part of the reason the Volunteers rushed to fill their vacancy after Strong’s turndown. A number of high-level boosters who gave Fulmer the heave-ho following his second losing season in four most likely did not want to run home to Papa and beg him to return, as some fans had begun to suggest. Plus, Fulmer did finish 29-21 over his last four seasons. Just because the Vols didn’t remarry well, it doesn’t mean their first divorce was a mistake. (Quick aside: What if Fulmer had been rehired and had failed to win? Would UT have canned a Hall of Fame coach twice? And given him another buyout?)
* UT’s AD will lose some power over the handling of this search. Perception is reality and the perception is he botched things. You can flirt with and be turned down by 20 coaches if fans like the guy you finally hire. Many Tennessee fans do not like Jones. Hart said at his presser announcing Dooley’s dismissal that he had “a plan.” Well, that plan — as we said early on — included Jimbo Fisher (wouldn’t talk, expect him to get a raise at Florida State), Mike Gundy (talked, will get more power at Oklahoma State), Charlie Strong (talked, got a huge raise at Louisville), and Larry Fedora (decided not to talk after initially angling for the job). Worse than that, we’ve been told Hart had a yes from Strong but made the ultimate sales mistake in leaving town without him and allowing Cardinals AD Tom Jurich to have the final word. Strong picked Louisville over Tennessee. We doubt Hart will be given so much power the next time the Vols make a major coaching hire.
* Jones’ forte is offense. His last three Cincinnati teams averaged 27, 38, and 31 points per game (albeit against Big East competition). The last two years his teams have finished ranked #31 and #36 nationally in rushing. The Volunteers have been better on offense than the Bearcats (with better talent, of course), but they’ve also been a pass-first squad. So Jones’ arrival in Knoxville could be good news for Missouri where current Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has become a hot target. Unless Jones wants to shake up his offense, Chaney’s time at UT may be up after four seasons and two head coaches (he was hired by Lane Kiffin).
So will Jones succeed at Tennessee? No one can say for sure, obviously. All hires are gambles. But his resume isn’t a bad one. Comparing him to the man above him on UT’s list, Strong, Jones’s resume is pretty good. Strong was just 1-2 head-to-head in three meetings with Jones. Strong’s career mark is 24-15 in three years at Louisville plus a game as interim coach at Florida. Jones’ career record is 50-27 in three seasons at Central Michigan and in three seasons at Cincinnati. Strong has ties to the SEC in recruiting, but Jones has won or shared four conference titles in six seasons as a head coach. CBSSports.com also named Jones the Big East Coach of the Year this year ahead of Strong, for whatever that’s worth.
Jones has a more established head coaching record than Malzahn at Auburn. He has more experience than first-time head coach Mark Stoops at Kentucky. Hart said he wanted someone with head coaching experience. While that’s no guarantee of success, Jones has more experience than two of the other three new SEC coaches hired… and more than Strong.
Ultimately, in a state that produces few NFL-caliber players, Jones will sink or swim based on recruiting. The immediate worry for Vol fans? He has no ties to the South and will have to put down ties quickly. But we said the same thing about Arkansas’ new hire, Bret Bielema earlier this week. It was a bit surprising to us to find that Rivals had ranked Bielema’s last two complete classes at Wisconsin pretty evenly with Jones’ last two singing classes at UC. In 2011, Wisconsin’s class was #40 while Cincinnati’s was #49. Last February, the Bearcats actually had the #50 ranked class while the Badgers came in at #56.
So Bielema comes from a bigger conference and has the bigger name, but he’ll face the same challenge as Jones — convincing top players from other areas to cross state lines and enter a state that can’t produce enough NFL players on its own. As we said in connection with Bielema, Vanderbilt’s Franklin has proven that an outsider coach with no recruiting ties to the SEC can succeed in that area.
Whether Jones can do what Franklin has done is anyone’s guess.