Wiedmer: Jones may be what UT needs, fans' fears aside

Wiedmer: Jones may be what UT needs, fans' fears aside

December 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Butch Jones

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - The news conference introducing Butch Jones as Tennessee's 24th head football coach was almost over Friday afternoon.

The new coach, wife Barb and three sons long since had left the building. The jokes from both Jones and UT athletic director Dave Hart about how neither had been his wife's first choice for a husband had drawn the hoped-for chuckles.

So, too, the coach's assertion that "if we lose a game, they [family] don't speak to me for a week. And I think they all have blogs, too."

It was a scene in many ways eerily reminiscent of Derek Dooley's news conference three years ago, right down to the family cute enough to have been borrowed from a Pottery Barn for Kids catalogue.

And all of this should have come across as a hugely positive sign to the Big Orange Nation, especially when Jones proclaimed it his "dream job," which were words never uttered by immediate predecessors Dooley and Lane Kiffin. Well, Kiffin did use those words about the Southern California position when he left the Volunteers.

But then Hart made an observation that should be tattooed on the forehead of every Volniac who loves, hates or feels moderately comfortable with this hire.

Said Hart: "At the end of the day, it's success on the field."

Bingo.

You can argue over whether it should be about more than winning. Not just this hire. Any hire in major college athletics. Whether it is more important, rather than merely more noble, to produce solid citizens and graduates than it is to fill stadium seats and trophy cases.

Perhaps to that end, Jones refreshingly declared, "We want our players to graduate with a meaningful degree."

Read that again. A MEANINGFUL degree. Not merely remain eligible for four years. Not graduate with something that forces them to work low-paying jobs not connected to their majors.

No, a meaningful degree. If Jones is on the level, then Rocky Top just elevated itself enormously over the jock factories that make up too much of the rest of the Southeastern Conference and beyond.

But Dooley also bent that way more than most. His Vol for Life program attempted to improve the lives of past, present and future players far beyond the parameters of their sport.

Unfortunately, he won only two of his last 16 SEC games, finished with a losing record all three seasons and had to be shown the door.

So it also will be with Jones if he doesn't win -- and win far more often than not. And when you're making close to $3 million a year, that's probably as it should be.

Beyond that, if Jones doesn't win, Hart almost assuredly also will be shown the door, possibly before his coach.

Yet given the lineage of the last two UT football hires, we all should probably congratulate Hart for going out on a limb and grabbing a guy whose father wasn't a more famous football coach than his son.

Turns out Jones' dad was a police chief. From that he says he learned how to read people.

"You're either the fountain or the drink," Jones said. He added that he refers to negative folks as "energy vampires."

And the Big Orange Nation seemingly had plenty of those Friday morning after Jones was announced as head coach. Some Twitter users begged him not to come. Calls to our office apparently ran at least 90 percent against his hire.

But the resume tells a different story, a story of a guy who twice took over for Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati and more than held his own, winning four conference titles in six years.

"The plan is infallible," Jones said, "if the players buy into it."

No, the Mid-American Conference and the Big East aren't the SEC. But neither do they have SEC resources, especially UT resources -- its recruiting budget close to $1 million, its massive, renovated stadium the envy of most of the sport, and, as Hart noted in a blatant attempt to soothe the savage beast: "We have the best fan base anywhere in any sport right here in Knoxville. You will never find a more passionate fan base."

The key now is to bring that bruised and bitter fan base back on board. Never mind what really went on in the unrequited love affair with Jon Gruden. Doesn't matter that Jones was no better than the fourth choice. Nothing matters now but the present and the future, beginning with the 2013 recruiting class, which the new coach said he would begin calling immediately.

"What we've got to do as a family, we've got to come back together as one," Hart said of the fractured and fragmented Big Orange Nation. "And I'm absolutely confident that that's what this fan base will do."

But as Hart has learned the hard way the past two seasons, that will be only if Jones has success on the field.