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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.
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University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick, left, poses for a photo with Madison Hollis during the Big Orange Caravan stop at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Thursday.

That sleepless night in December might seem like it was much more than five months ago to Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart.

One day after he thought he'd hired Louisville's Charlie Strong to be the Volunteers' football coach, Hart was in Lexington, Ky., visiting with Cincinnati coach Butch Jones for a late-night meeting that spilled over into the wee hours of a Friday morning.

Twenty-three weeks later, Hart described the experience of watching the man he hired energize a fan base and make some recruiting splashes in a brief amount of time.

"It's been gratifying and exciting," Hart said before the Big Orange Caravan's stop Thursday night at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "I'm excited in general. I'm excited about where we are and where we're headed, and clearly we got the right guy.

"We got a guy who wanted to the head coach at the University of Tennessee. He's passionate, he's genuine and I think he's off to a very, very good start in terms of galvanizing our fan base, former lettermen, high school coaches. He's prioritized those things, and he's followed through on the fact that he wanted to prioritize those things."

Jones' first season at Tennessee is still a summer away, but judged on his reception Thursday night -- which included a loud cheer and a standing ovation after his part of the program with Vol Network play-by-play voice Bob Kesling -- and elsewhere on his spring speaking circuit, Tennessee's fans are on board with the coach who replaced Derek Dooley, who won four SEC games in three seasons.

Much of the excitement has been generated by Tennessee's start in the 2014 recruiting class.

Typically with two or three public commitments at this point in the cycle under Dooley, the Vols have 12 pledges and rank in the top five classes according to three national recruiting services.

Hart said he's been impressed by the continuity and energy of Jones' assistant coaches.

"He's got a lot of Type-A type people, if you will, who go 24-7, who love to recruit," the AD said. "They love it. They know how important it is, but they love doing it."

Hart has daily contact and continuous interaction and communication with Jones, who said the past five months of working under Hart have solidified what others told him about Tennessee's second-year athletic director.

"He's the best director of athletics in the country," Jones said. "As much as he talks about myself and our staff's energy, he brings it every day. You walk into his office and he always has something new for you.

"His vision and his energy, it inspires us as well."

Hart said in December he was impressed by Jones' successful track record at his previous coaching stops, yet he also acknowledged that this season's Vols, hit hard by production losses at quarterback and receiver and trying to repair a program-worst defense, will have to do what many of Jones' teams did at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

"Butch hasn't won everywhere he's been by accident," Hart said. "He has a plan, and he follows that plan. He's surrounding himself with good people.

"This team's going to have to overachieve, in my personal opinion. This team's going to have to overachieve, but they're capable of that. They'll be sound fundamentally, they'll play hard, they'll be disciplined, and that in its own right has been exciting, too."

That Tennessee has a lot of ground to make up to reach the upper echelon in the SEC is no secret to Hart, Jones or even the Vols themselves. Jones reiterated Tennessee's minute margin of error throughout spring practice. The offensive struggles in the spring game further illustrated that point.

"We have maybe one of the best offensive lines in the country," Hart said. "We have a veteran offensive line, but we lost a lot of skill offensively, and that's just the reality. We lost a lot of skill offensively in particular, and we're trying to bounce back defensively to have a competitive product on the field defensively.

"I think we'll get that, but I think we need an infusion -- and we'll get that through recruiting -- of speed and talent across the board. We have some, but I think we'll obviously be focused on that and already are. We're off to a good start in recruiting, we have momentum, but as everyone knows, those are verbal commitments that have to turn into formal signatures.

"Certainly Butch and this staff, they've come aboard and done a great job in a short period of time of establishing a standard that they're going to hold people accountable to, and that's a high standard, and that's one of the many pieces of the puzzle to get us back to where we all want to be."

Contact Patrick Brown at or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at