KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones entered the Tennessee football team meeting room Sunday afternoon and said a few words.
The chief message was a thank-you to his players.
Then he stepped out of the room, his era as Tennessee's football coach complete.
"It was different," senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. "It was weird for us as players — the first time any of us have gone through this. It was different."
Wolf and a handful of teammates spoke to reporters Tuesday for the first time since athletic director John Currie fired Jones on Sunday morning following the Volunteers' 50-17 loss at Missouri.relatedarticlethumbfacebook
They expressed sadness over the loss of their coach and echoed the same message that interim head coach Brady Hoke shared Monday, that it's important to play the last two games for the sake of the seniors.
Tennessee's redshirt seniors were the first class to sign with Jones as the head coach. The fourth-year seniors signed with Jones following his first full recruiting cycle.
"He gave me an opportunity when not many other people would," redshirt senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. "I thank him for that. My memory at Tennessee is a great one. I think he pushed me every day to be a better player, pushed me to be a better person. I can't thank him enough for that."
Wolf said no players spoke in the Sunday team meeting but he knows several have reached out to Jones since.
"It was very disappointing," junior defensive end Kyle Phillips said. "But at the end of the day, it's a business and we understand that, and we're just moving forward to try and get these next two games for our seniors."
Florida has lost games to Missouri and South Carolina with interim head coach Randy Shannon since Jim McElwain was fired late last month. Tennessee needs to win both of its remaining games to qualify for a bowl game.
"We definitely don't want that to be us," Phillips said of Florida. "Like we said and Coach Hoke has been preaching, we're trying to leave our seniors with two victories and get to a bowl game. Our message is just play hard for our seniors. They've been working hard and made it to a bowl game three out of their four years here, so hopefully get them to a fourth one."
Senior kicker Aaron Medley, who is from Lewisburg, Tenn., said he hopes the next coach understands "what this place is and what it means.
"I think Coach Jones knew that, and I think Coach Hoke knows that," Medley said. "So for whoever the next coach is, just for the next coach to understand everybody that's come through here and everyone that will come through here after him and really take it to heart, because this is a special place."
The players spoke highly of the legacy Jones leaves behind. When Wolf arrived, Tennessee had been through four straight losing seasons.
Now, as he prepares to graduate, it has been through three straight winning seasons, though it will take an unexpected finishing flurry to keep that streak alive another year.
"I don't know how it's going to be portrayed by everyone else, but the way I would look at it is when he came here Tennessee was not anywhere near where it has been in the previous four years," Wolf said. "We still have an opportunity to be the first class to win four bowl games in a row, if I'm not mistaken. If we can get that done, he built that foundation and brought us back to where we were at.
"We've fallen short a little bit in terms of SEC championships in the past, but he definitely brought that energy and passion and winning expectation back to football here. He did a great job. That's what I would say."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.
This story was updated Nov. 14 at 11 p.m. with more information.