KNOXVILLE — Christmas amid change is nothing new for Butch Jones and his family.
Tennessee's new football coach faced uncertainty during the holiday season six years ago, when now-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly left Central Michigan for Cincinnati. Nearly three weeks later, the Chippewas hired Jones as his successor in early January.
Three years ago, Cincinnati named Jones to replace Kelly nine days before Christmas.
Though he's had 18 days between taking the Volunteers' job and today's holiday, Jones has been busy getting things established at UT while keeping up with his wife, Barb, and sons Alex, Adam and Andrew — aged 16, 12 and 5 — in Cincinnati.
With his staff in place and some ground regained in recruiting for this year's class and beyond, Jones and his assistants are being joined for the holiday by their families, he said before a 50-minute interview with the Times Free Press on Friday. The kids will use Tennessee's indoor practice facility as a playground, and the Christmas dinner will be at club level inside Neyland Stadium. There's also house-hunting to be done.
Though most of the discussion focused on his football philosophy, recruiting methods and coaching staff, Jones spent a little more than five minutes talking about his family and their initial interest in Tennessee, his wife and his upbringing in a small lake resort town in Michigan.
TFP: Let's go back to last September , when your Cincinnati team came and played here. Take me through that weekend. Was it straight to the hotel and straight to the stadium and that was it? Did you or any of your staff or any of your family get to look around at the campus and see anything like that? Or was it just mainly the stadium and the atmosphere that caught your eye and the eye of your staff?
Jones: "It was a business trip. Obviously my family came into town and were blown away with the support. Obviously they went out to eat and all that and met a lot of people, but for us it was a business trip. The thing I came away [with] is a great passionate fan base and a tremendous home-field advantage. You can't help but feel the tradition playing in Neyland Stadium. I knew it was a very, very special place coming in here."
TFP: One of your assistant coaches said that it was the annual wives trip. Everyone on your staff got to bring their wives? Were they the ones who were pointing out all the stuff around here that you guys weren't able to see?
Jones: "Right. They experienced it firsthand, and you can't help but be immersed with the passion and the tradition that surrounds our football program."
TFP: I walked in here and asked you about your family and what you guys are doing for Christmas. How did you meet your wife? Is that something you've been asked this week?
Jones (smiling): "You're the first one, thank you. ... We met in college [at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich.], and we've been married for over 20 years. I'm obviously very fortunate to have three great children, and football's a way of life for us. We're a football family. You'll see my wife at practice; you'll see my three kids at practice; we'll have the football team over to my house. I just believe that it's important that our players also see our coaches as fathers and as husbands. I think that's the thing, that we're mentoring young adults. I always tell them that my wife has three children and then 105 other children. That's the way we operate our program."
TFP:You said you guys will have the team over to your house. You haven't found that house yet, right?
Jones: "Not yet."
TFP: How difficult has it been with the rest of your family being up in Cincinnati and you being here having to focus and go 120 miles an hour down here?
Jones: "It's been difficult, but the great thing I go back [to] is this is also my wife's third time of doing this now. Really now, fourth, with the move from West Virginia [to Central Michigan in 2007]. You know what, she's a strong coach's wife, so she is actually raising my children. She's the father figure right now while I'm gone. She's the one that's preparing the house to put it on the market. She's the one who's coming to Knoxville and looking around for our next home, and she's been a warrior."
TFP: You grew up in a small town in Michigan. What was the population up there?
Jones: "I joke -- and it's Saugatuck, Michigan (pronounced SAW-ga-tuck) -- and I had, I believe, 62 individuals in my senior class. It's a resort town on Lake Michigan of about 1,200 residents, and in the summertime it may grow to about 10,000. All the restaurant and bar owners downtown were all classmates of mine, and it's a big resort town. My father passed away a couple of years ago, and he was chief of police for 30 some-odd years. My mother still lives there, so obviously we have a great deal in terms of summer vacations. We always go to Saugatuck."
TFP: You mentioned your dad being a police chief. What kind of impact did that have on you, and maybe what qualities did that give you that you still take with you today?
Jones: "Very impactful. We talk about you creating your personal brand. What does your last name stand for? At a very early age I had such an amount of respect for my father that I wasn't going to do anything to jeopardize him, and I took great pride in the last name of Jones. I was never going to do anything to embarrass my father, and my dream was to be a police officer growing up. I wanted to be just like my dad, so he was a great role model. He believed in tough love. That's why I was working at an early age of 14 [washing dishes]. Along with my mother, he created a work habit. He created a standard that you never quit anything. They rode me every day, and I'm a better person because of it."
TFP: Have you told your new team that you grew up as a son of a police chief? That might intimidate some of them.
Jones: "I haven't. One of the things I love is the study of human behavior. I love studying body language, and I think I can relate to our players. I can tell when an individual's having a good day or a bad day with their body language. I've been around people my entire life because of my father, so I think that really helps me relate. I think that really helps me see things coming [and] to be able to anticipate things as well."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...