Butch Jones constructing new foundation for Tennessee's football program

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – One minute, Butch Jones is sitting in the Tennessee staff meeting room. The next minute, he's out of his chair, down the hallway and returning with a reddish-brown brick in his hands and a twinkle in his dark eyes.

The brick has an orange outline of the state of Tennessee and a white "T" on one side. On the other is the slogan that has usurped the myriad other catchphrases and buzz words Jones uses: "Brick By Brick."

It is the new football coach of the Volunteers' favored Twitter hash tag. It is written in script on his orange golf shirt. It has darn near taken over his life.

"Brick By Brick" is his metaphor for the rebuilding process he has undertaken at a school that has lost its lofty place among the Southeastern Conference elite.

"It's developed a life of its own," Jones said of the brick movement. "It's not a fancy slogan. It's not a marketing ploy. It's what we have to do to build the foundation and get Tennessee back to its rightful place in college football."

Earlier this week, Jones had a meeting with everyone on campus who has even a fleeting interaction with Tennessee football: maintenance people, food-service workers, secretaries, you name it. There were about 150 people at the meeting. He wanted to underscore how important each of them is to the Volunteers program, and to find out what he could do to help them do their jobs.

"I want our secretaries to be the best in the country," he said.

To reinforce the unified theme, Jones gave each of them a brick.

"When we run out of that T on Saturday [onto the field at Neyland Stadium]," Jones said, "everyone has to be invested."

Tennessee's fans – a group Jones describes as "starving" for football glory – will invest. That has rarely been a problem in the school's rich football history. But it took a while for a lot of them to embrace the idea of Butch Jones as program savior.

Jones was, at best, the third choice for the job. The fan base allowed itself to believe the unbelievable: that former NFL coach Jon Gruden was headed to Knoxville. After getting over the crushing news that there is no Santa Claus, Vol Nation then went all-in on Louisville coach Charlie Strong – who, at one point, told Tennessee he was coming, but never got on the plane with athletic director Dave Hart and left town.

So Jones was the fallback choice. It may end up being the great-leap-forward choice.

The son of the police chief in Saugatuck, Mich., does not own the résumé of the new coach at Arkansas. Bret Bielema arrives from Wisconsin, where the Badgers have gone to three straight Rose Bowls.

He does not have the famous football surname of the new coach at Kentucky. If Mark Stoops brings any of big brother Bob's success to Lexington, the fans will be ecstatic.

He is not a familiar name with ties to the program glory days, like the new coach at Auburn. Gus Malzahn was the offensive mastermind who helped turn Cam Newton into the Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 draft pick and a national champion.

No, Butch Jones is none of those things. He's just a guy from Cincinnati by way of Central Michigan, accused of riding Brian Kelly's coattails at both jobs and building his 50-27 record with Kelly's players.

But that doesn't mean he's not the right man for the job. Especially if you look at which coaches are getting it done in the SEC right now.

Nick Saban was just three games over .500 at Michigan State until going 9-2 in his fifth and final season, then heading to LSU. He had never taken a team to a major bowl game.

Les Miles was an unspectacular 28-21 at Oklahoma State when LSU hired him. The New Orleans Times-Picayune was so impressed by Miles it ran the headline, "Settling for Les" on the day after after he was introduced.

Steve Spurrier was an exciting name at Florida in 1990, but more from his Heisman days as a player for the Gators than for his 20-13-1 record at Duke. His lone bowl appearance before returning to Gainesville was a 28-point loss to Texas Tech in the All-American Bowl.

Georgia's Mark Richt was an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State – a great place to learn, but it did not make him a proven quantity. Same with Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, who arrived via Urban Meyer's staff at Florida.

Prior to Bielema, the only hires in the last decade who had won a big-time bowl game and authored a top-10 season were Meyer and Bobby Petrino (and Saban 2.0 when hired at Alabama). Meyer and Petrino both did great things in the SEC, but neither is still in the league.

So in a league that devours its coaches – 10 new hires in the past four seasons – name recognition and fancy résumés are not the only predictors of success. The right guy can come out of nowhere – or Cincinnati.

Since the initial underwhelming response, Jones has won over the Tennessee faithful.

He's made more than 100 appearances around the state – from Memphis to more than a dozen in Nashville to a memorable one in Cleveland. When nearby Athens, Tenn., landed Saban as a speaker in June, the good people of Cleveland were outraged at the border incursion by the coach of a program Tennessee fans detest (and envy). So they organized a "Cleveland Rocks Butch Jones" rally four days earlier, and the new coach gladly showed up for it.

Jones has also tied into Tennessee's past. He had NFL star running back Arian Foster speak to the Vols' running backs for an hour, and he's smartly embraced the patron saint of the program, Peyton Manning. The quarterback spent three hours one day with the coaching staff talking Xs and Os, and has made some calls to donors to raise funds for facility upgrades. (Yes, even a Taj Mahal program like Tennessee still has some needs in that area – most notably more expansive practice fields.)

It was a discussion with Manning that's led Jones to stage an open practice in Neyland Stadium on Aug. 17, two weeks before the opener against Austin Peay. Without benefit of exhibition games, Jones wants to put his players through some game-type situations with plenty of fans watching to see how they react.

But mostly where Jones has won over the fans is on the recruiting trail. The most recent Rivals.com recruiting rankings put the Vols No. 1 in the country, with half of their 24 verbal commitments from four-star prospects.

For now, Jones will have to sell the future. Because the present isn't dazzling. A sixth straight season with at least six losses seems likely, and next year could be worse.

It might take until year three – which seems to be the expiration date on SEC fan patience these days – before the payoff can be seen on the field.

"I'm the most impatient person in the world," Jones said. "But it's going to be a process."

It takes time to stack enough bricks to see eye-to-eye with Alabama. Fortunately for Butch Jones, bricks are in plentiful supply in Knoxville.

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