Wiedmer: Timing right for Jones' raise, extension

photo The Volunteer's head coach Butch Jones raises his arms while walking off the field to celebrate his team's 24-17 win over the Commodores in Nashville on Saturday, Nove. 29, 2014.

Eric Berry never played for Butch Jones. He left the University of Tennessee football team for NFL riches after Lane Kiffin's only season as head coach at Tennessee.

But when the sad news arrived Monday that the Kansas City Chiefs' All-Pro defensive back has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, his chemotherapy to begin immediately at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital, the player's words concerning his illness sounded like those that might come from the kind of bright, high-character young men Jones seems to be recruiting to the Volunteers program.

Said Berry, whose father James once starred for the Vols and whose younger twin brothers Elliott and Evan now play for Jones: "For everyone sharing similar struggles, I'm praying for you and keep fighting."

Not "please pray for me," though so many both in and out of the UT extended family certainly will. Instead, "I'm praying for you and keep fighting."


Yet this is also another cloud that assuredly will hang over this snake-bitten program in the weeks and months to come. One of their all-time best and brightest is sick and hurting, not just his athletic future but his future life uncertain.

So even as Emory lymphoma specialist Dr. Christopher Flowers told The Associated Press, "This is a diagnosis that is very treatable and potentially curable with standard chemotherapy approaches," it's another punch to the gut for both the Vols and the Big Orange Nation they represent.

It's also why Monday's announcement that UT athletic director Dave Hart is tying up Jones through the 2020 season with both a contract extension and a raise couldn't come at a better time.

With rumors, however unsubstantiated, flying that Jones was on Michigan's short list, the last thing the Vols needed during this crucial recruiting period was any doubt to fester about the coach's UT future.

If Big Orange football needs anything after having four head coaches -- Phillip Fulmer, Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Jones -- in a six-year period from 2008 to 2013, it's stability. Upping Jones's salary to $3.6 million a year moves the Tennessee coach close to the average SEC salary of $3.75 million per season (according to USA Today), though it's only half what Alabama's Nick Saban makes annually ($7.2 million).

Of course, Jones also trails Saban 4-0 in national titles, 4-0 in SEC title-game appearances and 2-0 in head-to-head meetings, so it would be hard to argue he's worth even more money.

That doesn't mean Jones didn't deserve this deal, or that Volniacs everywhere won't one day look back at this extension and raise and praise Hart for his savvy.

A single quote from the AD to underscore the rightness of this action: "One important element that needs to be mentioned on top of everything I have articulated is, if you look at our academic environment when Butch got here and look at where we are today, that is a significant change for the better. Why is that? Because it is not lip service. Because he focuses on academics."

The record on the field thus far might suggest to some priority-challenged souls that Jones has focused too much on academics and such during his first two seasons in Volsville. UT is 11-13 over that time heading into its Taxslayer Bowl game against Iowa in Jacksonville on Jan. 2. Throw out two wins over South Carolina and there is yet to be a truly memorable triumph, the Vols a combined 0-6 the past two seasons against bitter rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

But as Hart pointed out, the coach is slowly, steadily, sturdily constructing a Big Orange future built on rock rather than sand. In a microwave culture, Jones is cooking with a crockpot, the finished product slower to arrive than some might prefer but far more likely to satisfy once completed.

"When you look at all the key areas of leading a football program," Hart said, "and how complex that is and how you have to multitask beyond what anybody actually realizes, unless you are in the profession, he does all of that and more."

The Vols have needed more from their recent coaches, of course. They came to need more off-field discipline from Fulmer than he often demanded during his championship seasons. They needed more maturity from Kiffin during his single autumn in charge. They needed more experience from Dooley.

And at some point soon, a Big Orange Nation that's seen but only 10-win season since 2005 (2007) after enjoying six from 1993 to 2001 will demand more and bigger wins from Jones.

But for now it's all about rebuilding this once-proud program brick by brick, without short cuts, with integrity and intelligence, one viewed as fundamentally sound rather than fundamentally flawed.

On the late November night the Vols became bowl-eligible by defeating Vanderbilt in Nashville, Jones had his team wear an arrowhead-shaped helmet patch stamped with Berry's No. 29 and the letters "VFL" (Vol for Life), though the player's medical diagnosis was still to be determined.

Coupled with the fans' emotional chants of "Er-ic Berry! Er-ic Berry!" that patch was a classy, touching symbol of how much the former UT All-American and his family mean to the program.

And at least one more reason why the Big Orange Nation could do worse than make Jones the UT coach for at least six more years of his coaching life.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.