Hart convinced new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones ready for SEC challenge

Hart convinced new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones ready for SEC challenge

December 16th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports College08football

University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart brought the topic to the discussion, Butch Jones was prepared for it.

The Volunteers' new football coach had not worked in the Southeastern Conference and knew that would come up in his meeting with Hart about Tennessee's vacancy.

Jones was ready for the conversation, although it was his resume that Hart was unable to ignore.

"We talked about that at great length, and Butch was very prepared to talk about that," Hart said. "Again, he's very familiar with this area in terms of recruiting, and he's very familiar with our state. He was extraordinarily prepared for our what turned into a very lengthy discussion.

"The primary focus for me was to judge the level of success. Has he been able to win everywhere he's been? Has he been able to rebuild? Has he been able to take talent that maybe was there and expound on the success of that talent?"

Jones, 44, did all of those things in the Mid-American and Big East conferences with Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where his teams won or shared championships in four of his six seasons as head coach. The MAC and Big East, however, are far from the SEC, where Tennessee last played for a title five tumultuous years ago.

Eight other current SEC coaches never had been in the nation's most difficult college league when they first took head coaching jobs in it. That group includes Alabama's Nick Saban, LSU's Les Miles and Georgia's Mark Richt, and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M a year ago and recent hires Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Jones at Tennessee have added to that list.

Saban, Miles and Richt all have been extremely successful. Florida's Will Muschamp, who spent eight seasons on the staffs at LSU and Auburn before taking the Gators' job last year, and Ole Miss's Hugh Freeze, a former three-year assistant with the Rebels, had successful campaigns in their first and second seasons in 2012.

Current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer won at Bowling Green and Utah before taking Florida to national titles in 2006 and 2008.

Perhaps Jones' most daunting challenges are going head-to-head against the league's tenured coaches. Saban, Miles, Richt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier have a combined 50 years of SEC head coaching experience. Muschamp just finished his 10th year in the league, and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen also is nearing a decade in the SEC.

"If you want to be the best, you want to compete with the best, and obviously the SEC is the best football conference in the country," Jones said. "I have many great friends that compete at this level, on this center stage. I look forward to it.

"I think what you have to do is look at our football staff and our body of work. The plan is infallible, if the players buy into and believe in it, and they will. It's a process [that's] been performed at two institutions along the way, and I look forward to the third."

Both Jones and Hart acknowledged the important of recruiting at any program, and Jones made that his focus this past week as he and his staff have traveled around the country visiting prospects. Aware of the need for some SEC experience among his assistants, Jones retained running backs coach Jay Graham from the previous staff, brought defensive coordinator John Jancek with him from Cincinnati and hired Willie Martinez and Tommy Thigpen, two coaches who were on Auburn's staff this season.

Among those four coaches -- and there remains one opening on Jones' staff for a receivers coach -- there are 23 years of SEC experience. Tennessee predecessor Derek Dooley's first staff in 2010 had just eight years of SEC experience, two of which came from two coaches he retained from Lane Kiffin's one year. Dooley's first staff brought in a 2011 signing class that could provide as many as a dozen starters for Jones' first team.

"I think great recruiters that I've known throughout my career, they had the skill set that enabled them to be great recruiters," Hart said, "but I do think it's important, particularly in this league -- and we talked about this is at great length -- to understand this league and understand the competitive nature of this league.

"He has an excellent grasp and an excellent plan of what he wants to do in that regard."

At his news conference the day he dismissed Dooley, Hart laid out his criteria for his new coach. He wanted a current head coach with integrity but stressed the importance of the new coach understanding the challenges Tennessee faces within the SEC. Louisville's Charlie Strong, who surprised Tennessee officials when he turned down an offer before the search moved to Jones, spent nearly two decades as an assistant in the SEC.

Hart, however, did his homework on Jones when he moved in that direction.

"I studied all the recruiting that Butch has done where he's coached," he said. "Recruiting's the lifeblood. I talked to coaches about his ability to recruit.

"I knew some former players. ... [One] player repeated to me before I ever met [Jones]: 'He cares. He drives us, but he cares.' The players really connect with him. That came from players that are now in the pros and players he's coached in college, and it was a very consistent theme."

Jones had other characteristics that impressed Hart. He said Jones understands both the importance of winning in recruiting and on the field and the larger-than-life role beyond the field of being the head coach at a program like Tennessee. Jones asked Tennessee's video crew to put a microphone on him when he got off the plane in Knoxville after accepting the job for behind-the-scenes footage, and his Twitter account has been a hit with fans.

"That's part of his makeup, which is refreshing," Hart said.

For a program that's won two of its last 16 SEC games, winning would be even more refreshing.