Can Jones Stabilize Tennessee Football?
By Dan Harralson
Tennessee football is more than this.
The Vols have produced losing seasons four of the last five and five of the last eight years. Big Orange football has seen four head coaches since the 2008 season, something unthinkable due to the program's previous stability: two national championship head coaches during the previous 32 years (1977-2008).
Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer created a stretch of winning seasons from 1989-2004 that included the 1998 national championship, four SEC championships, and nine bowl wins.
"It was a pretty special run. Both Majors and Fulmer, their names for a long time will be mentioned in the hearts of Tennessee fans," the voice of the Vols, Bob Kesling, told Football.com.
Kesling took over the radio play-by-play duties in 1999, replacing the legendary John Ward, but his ties to the university go back to when he was a walk-on to the 1972 freshman Vols football team. Current Alabama athletics director Bill Battle was the Tennessee head coach. Majors replaced him in '77 after winning the 1976 national championship at Pittsburgh.
Now times are different and the Vols' football program has not seen this many coaches in the amount of years since 1906-11 when J.D. Depree, George Levene, Andrew A. Stone, and Z.G. Clevenger roamed the Tennessee sidelines more than 100 years ago. Now the Tennessee football program turns to Butch Jones after former Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton pushed out Fulmer in '08. Lane Kiffin gave UT one year before he left for his beloved USC, and then Derek Dooley led three straight losing seasons.
Jones, also pursued by Colorado, comes from Cincinnati and Central Michigan where he won football games and conference championships, something Kiffin and Dooley did not have on their prior resume prior to their arrival in Knoxville.
Jones gets it. At least that it is how it appears in his first few months on the job. I sat down with Kesling, who has seen the Tennessee football program first-hand since the early 1970s, regarding the recent buzz the new Tennessee coach has created.
"There's always a level of excitement whenever a football season is about to start, but I think this year's a little bit different," Kesling said. "I think they (fans) see a lot of the positive things Butch Jones has done with this program. I think they've seen a lot of the positive things he has done in recruiting and in terms of media relations and getting the fan base united, he's pushed the right buttons over the last several weeks and since he's been here," Kesling said of Jones creating buzz on a number of different parameters including being atop certain recruiting services early on.
After Dooley was let go following a loss to Vanderbilt, the Tennessee fan base wanted to bring Jon Gruden back to East Tennessee. Gruden was part of arguably one of the best college football staffs ever, the 1986 Tennessee team. Johnny Majors had Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Walt Harris, Ron Zook, and Jon Gruden on staff that season.
Gruden did not come back to Knoxville and neither did other candidates the Vols had atop of their list, but Jones took the job and wanted it.
"The fans turned out for the Orange and White game. I think it is a very good indication that a lot of people think that he's the right guy for the job, at the time, and so now he's just got to go about continuing to build this fan base and continuing to get the players. Now Coach Jones is undefeated and all undefeated coaches are pretty popular, so he's got to start proving that his formula is going to work here and there's no indication that it's not," Kesling said.
Bringing back some of the previous Vols players, better known as the Vols for Life, was one of the first things Coach Jones initiated upon arrival. Having the support and presence of Fulmer and Majors is a sign Jones is part of the Tennessee family and is uniting the group.
"They're involved. Coach Majors pops into practice all the time. Coach Fulmer's around. Of course Coach Fulmer's pretty tied up with East Tennessee State right now trying to build that program. Coach Majors and Fulmer were at the spring practice luncheon together, so they've been around a lot. When you look at the school, their loyalties have never waivered and are all-in for Tennessee and want Tennessee to do well and the players to do well," Kesling said.
Winning football games may not come easy in year number one for Jones, but building the foundation and being competitive is a necessity even in 2013.
Kesling agrees: "You've got to remember this is a 5-7 football team last year. A lot of those kids from the 5-7 year are coming back, so now you've got to take some of the recruits coming in and coach them up and make them play better. Teach them how to win these close games down the stretch. You look back over the last four years and that has been a consistent problem that Tennessee just has not been able to win close games in the fourth quarter. To have a successful program and a winning program that's what you have to do, win those close games in the fourth quarter, play tough, and be able to run the football. Those are the things Coach Jones is trying to teach this team, the toughness it takes to be able to win in the fourth quarter in the SEC, and that's being pretty dang tough."
Tennessee football will always be Tennessee football, and winning football at that. Much like the recent success of Alabama's football program, it proves that great programs can falter for occasional stretches, but ultimately bounce back into championship form. Facilities and resources have a great influence in this day and age.
"The one thing that's true is that kids want to go where they can win and be in bowl games and they also want to go someplace where they can play," Kesling said. "Right now Coach Jones has a great opportunity for a lot of guys to play early. The facilities here are second to none since they've re-done the football training complex."