Wiedmer: Jones' leadership looking better and better

Wiedmer: Jones' leadership looking better and better

October 20th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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University of Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones walks the sidelines during the Volunteers game against the University of South Carolina Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013.

University of Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - There stood Butch Jones. Atop a metal ladder. Waving his arms like Leonard Bernstein. Leading the University of Tennessee marching band, which is currently in need of a permanent leader, but probably can't afford Jones after the new football coach's team shocked No. 11 South Carolina 23-21 inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

"Rocky Top," Jones said of his song of choice as the brief conductor of the Pride of the Southland Band. "That's the greatest song in the world."

This was the easily the greatest day in the world of UT football since the 2009 Volunteers beat the Gamecocks on Halloween night. Over the next three-plus seasons 19 straight ranked opponents had beat the Big Orange, often by wide margins.

And it certainly appeared as if such disappointment would visit the Vols again after South Carolina turned a 17-7 halftime deficit into a 21-17 lead before the third quarter ended. It was beginning to look like the painful finish of the Georgia overtime loss two weeks ago. So close ... so far ... so predictable.

But then Michael Palardy kicked a 33-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to pull UT within one at 21-20. And freshman Marquez North made the kind of 39-yard catch along the sideline on a third-and-10 that's most often been made in past years by guys named Peerless, and Willie, and Pickens, and Richmond, and Donte, and Denarius.

A couple of minutes later, Palardy lined up for the game-winner from 19 yards out. He later admitted, "I've never kicked a game-winner before. I'd never even attempted one. Not in high school. Never."

But Jones had also looked across the salad-bar table at Palardy on Friday night and asked, "You've got the game-winner tomorrow?" Replied Palardy, "I've got you, Coach."

So he drilled this one as the horn sounded, setting off the kind of celebration not seen in this stadium since James Wilhoite booted a 50-yard field goal to beat Florida in 2004. There was Palardy, running down the field, his teammates chasing him and finally catching him at the 15-yard line.

"I kind of gave up after awhile," he said. "I stopped and fell to the ground. I couldn't breathe."

A few minutes later, Jones having auditioned for band director, the coach found UT athletic director Dave Hart and gave him a chest bump, both men momentarily floating above the green grass.

"It's ultimately a matter of belief," Jones would say later. "I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago [against Georgia]. It was gut-wrenching, but also our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing. We've pointed to this game for a long period of time."

In the future, it's not hard to imagine Volniacs pointing to this victory as the day their beloved Big Orange returned to relevance, because it was that kind of day. A landmark day. A program-changing day.

Right up there with that day in 1971 when the Vols trashed No. 5 Penn State 31-11. Or the 40-18 win over No. 13 Notre Dame in 1979. Or that September night in 1998, when Florida finally fell 20-17 in overtime, causing the field to flood with orange, an unexpected national championship to be won 107 days from that moment.

Even the players said as much, especially the older ones such as senior running back Rajion Neal, who ran for a team-high 77 yards and one touchdown, then said of this win: "One of those moments you'll remember. Kind of jumpstart all of this. We needed this desperately. It's been a long time."

Theoretically, it could be a long time more before this happens again. No. 1 Alabama welcomes the Vols to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. A week later comes a visit to Missouri, which remains unbeaten and largely untested after a weekend rout of Florida. Then comes Auburn. And Vanderbilt, which shocked Georgia.

But this quote from Vols senior defensive lineman Dan Hood also bears repeating: "We knew what plays they were going to run."

Think about that. Against one of the brightest coaching minds in the history of the SEC, Hood said the Vols knew what plays they were going to run. And in that final quarter, the quarter that snapped a 19-game losing streak against ranked foes, is showed. Having given up 369 yards through three quarters, Hood and his mates coughed up just 15 more in the fourth.

Yes, Gamecocks quarterback Conner Shaw was hurt, but that was late. After almost being pounded into oblivion in the third, UT stiffened when it mattered most.

"We got together as a defense," said senior lineman Marlon Walls. "And said enough is enough."

It is never enough for Jones, of course. Not the preparation. Not the motivation. Not the inspiration.

He convinced more than 200 former Vols to run through the "T" before this one, including former quarterback Tony Robinson, who hadn't been back for 25 years, and Jamal Lewis. Former coach Johnny Majors led the Vol Walk.

"I got goosebumps," Jones said.

You can always make too much of one win. Particularly with the SEC schedule the 4-3 Vols must yet play. A bowl may now seem more doable than doubtful, but it is far from a done deal.

After he got through chest-bumping his football coach, Dave Hart was stopped by a friend, who asked him, "So you think you got the right coach?"

Replied Hart: "I've always known I did."

After Saturday, if only for Saturday, it would be nearly impossible to argue otherwise.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com