Wiedmer: Can positive leadership from coach Butch Jones lift the Vols? [videos]

Tennessee NCAA college football coach Butch Jones speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, (AP Photo/Butch Dill), Monday, July 10, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

HOOVER, Ala. - Much as he had with Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema and LSU's Ed Orgeron earlier in the day, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey introduced Tennessee coach Butch Jones to the media at the league's football media event Monday.

According to Sankey, upon welcoming Jones to the conference's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., last month, the coach told the commish he needed to read Jon Gordon's motivational book, "The Power of Positive Leadership."

Then, as usual, Coach Cliche spent the next 30 minutes displaying that upbeat philosophy during his time at the podium, as perfect an example of positive leadership as is likely to be seen during the event's remaining three days, especially since the most successful of those coaches is the often grumpy Bama boss Nick Saban.

And as should be the case with all the league's 14 coaches, the Jones pep talk began with what should be the most important point regarding his players' long-term futures; academics.

"Just four and a half years ago, our program was facing the potential APR penalty, and now that's a thing of the past," began Jones, recalling the mess he inherited from Derek Dooley at the close of the 2012 season.

"For the second year in a row we'll graduate 100 percent of our seniors in our program. We have 67 players on this year's football team that have a 3.0 (grade point average) or above. And on the last two bowl wins, we've had 26 college graduates participate in those bowl games."

But he was just getting started.

"On the field, we're very proud of the fact that we're one of only three (SEC) programs that have won (at least) nine games two years in a row. We've been very fortunate to have three straight bowl victories, first time in 20 years in our great program's history and tradition, but there's so much more out there. There's so much more out there to be accomplished, and we've only started."

Some in Big Orange Nation might want those accomplishments to match the hype. Ranked in almost everyone's Top 10 in last year's preseason, the Volunteers earned a final ranking of 22 after toppling Nebraska in the Music City Bowl to finish 9-4.

Yet when Jones was asked if last season was a disappointment, he remained unfailingly positive, despite confounding losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the season's final five games.

"I don't view it as a disappointment," he said. "The way I view it is we didn't accomplish everything we set ourselves out to do. But I think all you have to do is look at it's difficult to win (in the SEC) and it's difficult to win championships. But I'm still proud of the way our team responded. And I told our football team this: The lessons you learned from last year, the resolve, the resiliency, are going to serve you for many years down the road in life."

The Jones haters, of whom there reportedly are many, no doubt will despise those words as they did his quotes about last year's team leaders being "champions of life" and possessing "five-star hearts."

That particular segment of the Big Orange Nation seemingly wants to see Jones suffer along with them, to shout of his disappointment over having yet failed to beat Alabama, or reach the SEC title game, or even a top-tier bowl game.

And if Jones expects to see a sixth Media Days or beyond, he might want to start producing 10-win (or better) seasons rather than nine-victory campaigns.

Yet shouldn't every UT fan feel better about the program today than when Jones took over? The Vols have beaten Georgia two years in a row. They knocked off Florida this past season. His team started off 5-0 a season ago before too many injuries to count and the spoiled brat Jalen Hurd derailed the victory train. Nor should the Vols' academic success and overall scarcity of off-field issues be ignored.

Beyond that, his players' thoughts Monday deserve mention and thought.

Said defensive lineman Kendal Vickers when asked about Jones possibly being on the hot seat this season: "It's a little disrespectful. When I got here, we were 5-7 and I was redshirted. Things were bad. For us to win three straight bowl games. He's changed this program so much, and he's done everything he's possibly been able to do to change the culture at Tennessee."

Added defensive back Emmanuel Moseley: "Coach Jones, he's a positive guy. He's very positive; he knows that that's what we need as a team."

Reasonable fans can argue over this approach until or unless the positive leadership of Jones produces an SEC championship, or at least a spot in the SEC championship game. Otherwise, the negative view that Coach Cliche can't return the program to the championship form it showed in the 1990s will have some merit.

Yet this last bit of the UT coach's positive leadership also deserves consideration, if only because Moseley so strongly believes that's what this Big Orange bunch needs to succeed.

"When we set off four years ago building this program, we knew it wasn't going to be a quick fix," Jones said. "We wanted to build something that would be the foundation would be set for many, many years, and that foundation is set for success."

Given his success beyond wins and losses only, Jones would seem to be onto something. Yet given the apparent angst of the Big Orange fan base, should the Vols again fail to win more than nine games, one can't help but wonder how many more years he may have to make a positive impact on UT football.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.