KNOXVILLE — Unlike seven other assistant coaches on Tennessee's new football staff, Tommy Thigpen never set foot on the campus of Central Michigan University.
That doesn't mean he's unfamiliar with the Volunteers' new boss.
While Tennessee's linebackers coach was at Auburn last year, Thigpen met a couple of coaches with whom he's now working when some of Butch Jones' defensive coaches at Cincinnati — including then defensive coordinator John Jancek and safeties and special teams coach Mark Elder — attended a clinic with the Tigers' staff.
The connection with Brian VanGorder didn't hurt, either.
"I met some of his staff last year," Thigpen said earlier this month. "They came down last year and clinicked with us down at Auburn. Coach Jancek and Coach Elder and those guys were down, and I knew Willie [Martinez] worked with him.
"I think Brian and all those guys, all of them were from the Michigan area or have some kind of Michigan background, when it came down to, 'Can we hire a Tommy Thigpen?' all those guys spoke highly of me."
When he took the Tennessee job, Jones knew he had to hire a staff quickly and wanted a combination of continuity and Southeastern Conference experience. He brought six coaches with him from Cincinnati, and the four other coaches on his first Tennessee staff have 19 years combined in the league.
Thigpen spent the last four years at Auburn.
"I just thought it was important we bring guys in that really understood [the SEC]," Jones said. "Willie Martinez [and] John Jancek at Georgia, they won SEC championships. Tommy Thigpen's won a national championship. I just think having that balance on staff and really knowing the standards and expectations was big."
Thigpen coached the Tigers' safeties his first three seasons at Auburn before taking over the linebackers this season. When Auburn won the 2010 national championship, Gene Chizik became the third title-winning head coach for whom Thigpen has worked. He coached for two seasons at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer and for four seasons at North Carolina under Butch Davis.
"Tommy's another really good teacher [who] understands the game and relates with the players really well," said Martinez, the Vols' secondary coach who spent the 2012 season with Thigpen at Auburn. "An excellent recruiter very familiar with the conference. I think that he'll be a really good mentor for these players and our staff."
VanGorder, a former Georgia and Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator, coached with Jones at Central Michigan more than a decade ago (1998-99) and worked with Thigpen this season as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
"[Thigpen's] a tireless worker," Jones said. "He's a great recruiter, but he's also a very good football coach. I did my due diligence of calling around.
"Brian VanGorder's a very close friend of mine. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a football coach and as a defensive football coach, and when Brian spoke of him, I could feel that in his voice that Tommy Thigpen was a very, very good football coach, a good person and a great recruiter. That was echoed with everyone I spoke about, and I knew he'd be a great addition."
Though he's one of the strangers on the UT staff, Thigpen knows and believes in Jones' track record.
"The thing is he has people skills," Thigpen said. "That's still the main selling point when he goes into a home. He's won everywhere he's been. That's what kids want to know today. They want to know, 'How are you going to get me to the next level? How are we going to win championships?'
"He's got a formula for success with that. Being in the Big East or the SEC or Big Ten — it doesn't really matter. His formula has worked, and some guys in this conference that's been other places have carried that same formula and it's worked in other places. What Butch is bringing to the table already has a foundation for success."
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 ...