Forde-Yard Dash: What went wrong for Butch Jones at Tennessee

Pat Forde

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In August 2013, Butch Jones (1) sat in a conference room in the Tennessee football facility and told stories. The room was his makeshift office, the place where he was spending much of his time while trying to get the program he’d just taken over off the ground. Tennessee football had been a failing product for years, and Butch was hired to change that.

He seemed to have the intangibles for the job, the requisite energy and the right personality to sell his Volunteers vision to recruits and beaten-down fans. And he had slogans. “Brick by Brick” (2) was the slogan of choice at that time.

On that day, when Butch was undefeated as coach of the Vols and the offices brimmed with optimism, he told a story about his late father, Lyle, a police chief in Saugatuck, Michigan, who died in August 2009 — when Butch was the head coach at Central Michigan. Sitting in that Knoxville conference room, eyes glistening, Jones expounded about the upset his Chippewas pulled on Michigan State three weeks after Lyle Jones died — a game won on a field goal with three seconds left that snuck just inside the upright. Jones was convinced his dad willed that kick through the posts from the hereafter.

That was Butch Jones in 2013 — charismatic, slightly crazy and very confident he was going to compete for national championships at Tennessee. A little more than four years later, Jones is out as coach of the Volunteers, his program in disarray and all the slogans unfulfilled.

Butch Jones didn’t work out at Tennessee, accumulating a record of 34-27. (Getty)
Butch Jones didn’t work out at Tennessee, accumulating a record of 34-27. (Getty)

The charisma worked on the recruiting trail — Jones’ four recruiting classes all ranked in the top 15, and two were in the top five. But it never translated substantially to the field, where dysfunction often ruled and Tennessee found creative ways to blow games. But that was before the last six games, when the Vols mostly just rolled over and were pummeled.

And so it was time for Butch to go, after failing to win a downtrodden SEC East, after sloganeering without succeeding. And now the Vols will try to get it right all over again.

Don’t waste time with the revived Grumors (3) — Jon Gruden is not walking off that private plane in Knoxville as the next coach of Tennessee. Athletic director John Currie could do worse than Memphis’ Mike Norvell (4), although he might bear uncomfortable resemblance to Jones as an American Athletic Conference-level coach who is still riding the momentum of the successful previous regime — Norvell is to Justin Fuente at Memphis as Jones is to Brian Kelly at Cincinnati.

Purdue’s Jeff Brohm (5) would be an attractive candidate — a bright offensive mind who lit up scoreboards at Western Kentucky and this year has very quickly upgraded the previously moribund Boilermakers to 4-6 and competitive on a weekly basis. That’s the program’s most wins in a season since 2012, with at least two games to go.

The new guy is advised to try this approach: fewer slogans, better coaching.


How the College Football Playoff rankings should look Tuesday night, if the selection committee is again smart enough to listen to The Dash:

Alabama (6). The Crimson Tide (10-0) move up to No. 1 but had their closest brush with defeat this season Saturday, rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Mississippi State by seven. The victory is testament to Alabama’s ability to play under pressure and pull one out on the road, but there also is reason for concern. The Tide’s injury-devastated linebacking corps was susceptible against the run — the Bulldogs rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns, both season highs allowed by Alabama. And Nov. 25 opponent Auburn has the most productive running back in the SEC in Kerryon Johnson. Next: the annual late-season cupcake, this time Mercer. Which is not the worst opponent a playoff aspirant will play this week (see below).

Miami (7). The Hurricanes (9-0) make their Dash playoff debut after one of the biggest wins anyone has had all season, blowing out Notre Dame 41-8. It was a no-doubter from the start, complete domination, and it showcased Miami’s dynamic and disruptive defense. But don’t overlook the Hurricanes’ evolving rushing power offensively — they pummeled Virginia Tech and Notre Dame the past two games for a combined 447 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Next: Virginia, in a third straight home game. Miami has won eight straight home games and nine straight ACC games.

Oklahoma (8). The Sooners (9-1) easily won what might well be the first of two games against TCU, piling up 38 points and more than 400 yards in the first half before putting the nation’s most explosive offense into park. The Sooners have unveiled their next star running back, sophomore Rodney Anderson, who was a bit player until a month ago. In the past four games he has run for 590 yards, caught passes for 217 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Next: at Kansas. And as referenced above, the 1-9 Jayhawks are worse than Mercer (149 to 156 in the Sagarin Ratings). Oklahoma could send the RUF/NEKS to Lawrence without shoulder pads or helmets and still win.

Clemson (9). The Tigers (9-1) simply continue to win, beating Florida State on Saturday in Death Valley, but not with much dominance. Their passing game has been unspectacular for several weeks, averaging fewer than 200 yards per game and fewer than six yards per attempt over the past four contests. The fact that Clemson has gotten this far is a testament to the winning culture the program has built in recent years. But you wonder whether the Tigers may be susceptible in the closing weeks of the playoff chase. Next: They won’t be susceptible this week, not playing The Citadel (No. 166 Sagarin).

Dropped out: Georgia, Notre Dame. Simultaneous road flops in mid-November are not good.

Also considered: Wisconsin (10), which is undefeated but still not worthy of inclusion in the bracket. The Badgers’ defense completely dominated Iowa on Saturday — and needed to, with quarterback Alex Hornibrook throwing three interceptions. Here’s the thing: On a weekend that underscored the difficulty of playing good teams on the road, Wisconsin has benefited from playing a succession of cadavers away from Camp Randall Stadium: BYU (No. 111 Sagarin), Nebraska (No. 72), Illinois (No. 121) and Indiana (No. 58). The last road game will be the toughest, at No. 48 Minnesota — and that’s not very tough.

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