Wiedmer: Butch Jones energizing Vols' big fan base (with video)

Wiedmer: Butch Jones energizing Vols' big fan base (with video)

May 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones, left, signs an autograph for Paul Finkleman during the Big Orange Caravan stop at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Thursday.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

Orange and white "UT" earrings dangled from her lobes. An orange No. 16 Peyton Manning jersey covered her torso. Her pants were white. Her sandals were orange and white.

So just how big a Big Orange fan is Kimberli Leffew-Kirk?

"I'm 47 years old today and I chose to spend my birthday here," she said as she stood in line for autographs during Thurday's Big Orange Caravan stop at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "What does that tell you?"

The increased numbers from last year's Caravan seem to indicate that Leffew-Kirk is far from the only person in southeast Tennessee who's crazy about her Vols at the moment.

"We've probably got 100 more people here than last year," said the university's Angela Mills, who helps coordinate the Caravan stops.

"We're probably around 450, maybe 475. That's bigger than Memphis, about the same as Atlanta. We'll have a little over 500 in Nashville, but this is a great turnout."

The overwhelming reason for such excitement is clearly new football coach Butch Jones, who is yet to coach or win a game while clad in UT Orange but already clearly has won over the fans, who gave him a standing ovation.

"I'm in development," said Dan Carlson, UT's director of internal operations. "I have seen a huge shift in enthusiasm [since Jones was hired]. There's an energy level with our alums we haven't seen in years, and it has to be because of football.

"Football is the front door to the university. Giving goes up across the board when we're winning big in football. Certainly, we still have a ways to go right now. But there seems to be a complete confidence that Butch is going to get it done."

You can argue about the message that sends to the rest of your university. But Carlson has numbers to back him up, such as the meteoric rise in overall giving at Alabama upon the arrival of football coach Nick Saban. Or the admissions applications that tripled at Boston College when Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in 1984.

For better or worse, sports sells. Just as important -- though also possibly just as troubling for those who believe we've wrongly become obsessed with organized athletics in this country -- sports matters. Deeply.

Just consider Bradley Baker, who brought his 5-year-old son Liam to the Caravan. To show how sports unites generations, Liam said his favorite UT football player was the same as the one for 47-year-old Leffew-Kirk -- Peyton Manning.

To show how sports can divide families, Bradley Baker talked about his wife, Meredith, who's a huge Georgia fan.

"One night a year I can't sleep at home," he said with a slight grin. "If UT wins, I get kicked out. If Georgia wins, I don't want to be there."

At least the kids are equally split down the middle. Liam loves the Vols. Eleven-year-old daughter Olivia pulls for the Dawgs.

Not that football was the only sport on the Caravan menu. After receiving a handsome shadow box from our town's resident master of such crafts, Alan Pressley, UT Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick spoke of guiding her team to the Elite Eight in her first year replacing Pat Summitt.

"Looking at the big picture, whoever would agree to follow a legend such as Pat would be crazy," Warlick said. "But you just go with what you've been taught. Fortunately, our kids bought into it."

That's not to say Warlick wasn't briefly concerned when she lost her opener at UT-Chattanooga.

"I thought my career was over," she said. "But then Pat came up to me outside the locker room, put her arm around me and said, 'I lost my first game, too.'"

Jones hasn't lost at anything yet. Recruiting is going great, spring practice was a success and the Vols just posted a 2.8 team grade point average for the spring semester with 46 players scoring a 3.0 or better. To better understand that improvement, just two years ago the football GPA was 2.08.

"The first thing is to win off the football field," Jones said. "That's why my favorite word is 'discipline.' That's the foundation for being successful in life. The foundation for our football program is academics. First and foremost, we want our players to leave Tennessee with a degree."

Maybe such discipline will produce football wins this fall and maybe it won't.

As UT athletic director Dave Hart noted, attempting to temper outrageous expectations for a team that's posted losing records four of the last five seasons: "Listen, we're not going to set the world on fire and play for a national championship. But we're going to have a better football team. I think our fans are going to see the intensity, effort and fundamental soundness that Butch demands."

From the academics to the demand for flawless fundamentals, Jones sounds more and more like the Lady Vols program that Warlick now runs, which may be why 13-year-old Hunter Middle School point guard Macy Milliken keeps a poster of Warlick hanging in her bedroom.

And that's just fine with Leffew-Kirk.

"Oh, I'd love to get Holly's autograph," she said. "I once stood in line at a Barnes & Noble for 10 hours to get Pat Summitt to autograph a book she'd written."

Judging by the enthusiasm of the Caravan crowd, if Jones starts piling up championships at the rate Summitt did, waiting 10 hours for his autograph might be a bargain.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com