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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones disagrees with the referee about a play during the first half an NCAA college football game Alabama, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Thank God for Butch Jones.

This season, he has become one of Southeastern Conference football's finest teachers.

Not about football.

But about the soul.

Jones' season has been a royal collapse. His University of Tennessee football team has lost games it shouldn't. Can't find the end zone. Players arrested for dope. Fans now boycotting. He is easily the least popular man in the state.

"Fire Butch Now!" the chant goes.

"Butch Jones is now a dead coach walking," CBS proclaimed.

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David Cook

Know what?

He's losing. He's a loser.

But aren't we all?

It is a dangerous illusion to pretend life is nothing but victory. We lose, hurt, suffer, fall short, squander, disappoint, damage, crash, fail and flail. To use a football term: we fumble. A lot.

If losing is defined as not getting what you want, then we lose all the time. Life hurts, frustrates, enrages and saddens. Every day. For all 7 billion of us on Earth.

And this season, no team in the South mirrors this truth more than UT.

That makes Butch Jones a spiritual teacher. Yes, spiritual — for it is through him that we are reminded that life does not always bring us what we want.

Jones has far more to teach us than, say, Nick Saban. The University of Alabama coach wins and wins and wins. It's become, well, too predictable.

And life — anything but predictable — has far more in common with Butch Jones than Nick Saban.

These last several weeks, I've endured my own losing season. A back injury has made me weak where I was once strong. Doubting, instead of confident. Afraid and angry and depressed, instead of, well, my everyday self.

Soon, the truth hit: isn't that anger and doubt and weakness part of life? Isn't that part of the human experience, as well?

How small of me to give thanks only during the sunshine, but not the rain.

It creates great suffering to only expect one, but not the other.

And sometimes, don't the tough times — our losing seasons — turn out in the end to be our best friends?

"Life is like that," writes Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. "We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But we really just don't know."

Yes, I'm on the mend, but through this injury, I've identified with UT football more than ever. Through my own losing season, I'm learning lessons unavailable to me through winning. This pearl of great price is found through the suffering, the struggle, the losing season. (The Bruce Pearl of great price, however, is found elsewhere — through scandal and cheating.)

Sports and the spirit often go hand in hand.

There is but a thin orange line separating Saturday afternoon from Sunday morning. In the stadium and the church-house, there are highs and lows, passions and emotion, death and rebirth. The fan. The believer. These two selves often merge.

So even though we may hate him athletically, do not neglect the spiritual lessons Butch Jones — whether he knows it or not — offers.

Many years ago, I was a sportswriter and covered everything from girls softball and college basketball to the NFL. At the end of the game, I'd interview coaches, players, even fans, and soon I noticed a trend; during many interviews, someone would usually mention God.

And it was always after a win. A victory. A success.

"I'd like to thank God for this win today," they'd begin.

Soon, I began to notice something else.

Nobody ever thanked God for the losses.

Or defeats.

Or wounds.

Yet the losses shape us.

The defeats teach us.

The wounds make us who we are.

So shouldn't we be thankful for losing?

Can't we be thankful, even through gritted teeth, for Butch Jones?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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