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University of Tennessee athletic director John Currie, pictured, spoke Sunday afternoon in Knoxville after firing football coach Butch Jones earlier in the day.
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NASHVILLE — Anyone and everyone entering the Nissan Stadium press box late Sunday morning was greeted with the same question: "Have they fired Butch Jones yet?"

Not a single inquiry about the hometown NFL team's game against the Cincinnati Bengals that would end in a Tennessee Titans victory later in the day. Or President Trump's trip to the Far East. Or the least decorated of those basketball Ball brothers — UCLA freshman LiAngelo Ball — leading the world in steals after getting arrested for shoplifting during the Bruins' trip to China last week.

No, it was all about the fuzzy future of fifth-year University of Tennessee football coach Jones in the wake of Saturday night's 50-17 loss at Missouri.

And by a little after noon, the Big Orange Nation at long last had the words it had been waiting on for weeks, if not months, even possibly — at least in some decidedly unrealistic corners of the "I want it yesterday" universe — a year ago or earlier.

Stated first-year UT athletic director John Currie in a news release: "I have asked Coach Jones to step down as head football coach."

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University of Tennessee Athletic Director, John Currie speaks during a press conference announcing the firing of head football coach, Butch Jones, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (Wade Payne/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
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Some would argue Currie waited too long to pull the plug. More seasoned and less hurried souls might complain that it was something of a rush to judgment. Jones' contract extends through the close of the 2020 season. The Vols could still become, at least theoretically, bowl eligible by winning their remaining games (both at home) against LSU this Saturday and Vanderbilt on Nov. 25.

But Currie was also appearing to grasp, if somewhat belatedly, that his own thin popularity was falling more rapidly than autumn leaves because the vast majority of the fan base wanted Jones gone.

And it's hard to argue the numbers, which were beginning to trend against the coach hired by former UT athletic director Dave Hart on Pearl Harbor Day in 2012. Not only do the Volunteers remain winless in the Southeastern Conference this season, their margins of defeat have grown larger rather than shrunk.

Beyond that, for all the good work Jones has done off the field — work fairly praised by Currie, who noted "the program has improved tremendously in the areas of academics, discipline and community involvement" — the loss to Missouri was another sign of a lack of discipline on the field. The loss was marred by a key unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, turnovers and missed tackles.

In what may be the understatement of the new millennium for disgruntled Vols fans the nation over, Currie said of the decision, "Unfortunately, we are not where we need to be competitively."

What's less clear for a coach who has always hung his hat on 60-minute football, on never giving up, was Jones' decision not to coach the Vols' final two games. He voluntarily stepped aside for associate head coach and defensive line coach Brady Hoke, formerly a head coach at Ball State, San Diego State and Michigan.

It was certainly Jones' right not to coach, much as predecessor Derek Dooley didn't coach the final game after being fired. But electing to finish the schedule might have reinforced Jones' constant message he was never going to give up on his kids.

That said, it's finally over. Jones leaves with a 34-27 overall record, a 14-24 SEC record, a losing streak against every SEC team on the schedule and a 3-12 mark against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

And with this firing, Currie is now front and center, with quite possibly his entire career and certainly his immediate popularity almost completely tied to this hire. While there's something quaintly admirable about loudly supporting your nonrevenue sports as your cash cow is imploding, there also seemed to be something at least slightly insincere about Currie's constant trumpeting of soccer and volleyball, as if he was taunting those who believed he needed to much more publicly voice his concern on the direction of the football program.

Of course, if the rumors are accurate that a deal has already been cut to bring former Tennessee graduate assistant and NFL coach Jon Gruden to Rocky Top, Currie could remove Pat Summitt's statue, ban the playing of "Rocky Top" after touchdowns and change the name of Neyland Drive to Kiffin Lane, and no one might care.

But to his credit, Currie wisely noted in Sunday's prepared statement that his search for Jones' replacement "will be my sole focus."

It better be, because if his hire flops, it will be the sole thing he'll ever be remembered for during his tumultuous time as Tennessee's AD.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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