Thunder hold off Lakers’ late charge
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones was pondering whether to leave Cincinnati this week to coach Colorado when he received a text message that inadvertently foreshadowed his eventual destination.
It was from Denver Broncos quarterback and Tennessee great Peyton Manning.
“He was selling me on Colorado,” Jones said. “He said it was hard for a person from the University of Tennessee to be selling somebody to come to the University of Colorado. I wanted to text him back, ‘Come on, I want to go to Tennessee.’ “
That’s exactly where Jones ended up.
Tennessee introduced Jones on Friday as its successor to Derek Dooley, who was fired Nov. 18 after going 15-21 in three seasons. Jones called Tennessee his dream job and said he was taking over “the best college football program in America.”
It hardly mattered to Jones that he wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice.
“I think I was my wife’s third choice, and it’s worked for 20 years,” Jones said.
The 44-year-old Jones has a 50-27 record in six seasons as a head coach. He went 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan and was 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years. He now faces the task of rebuilding a former Southeastern Conference power that has posted three consecutive losing seasons.
Jones agreed to a six-year contract worth $18.2 million, ending a tumultuous couple of days for both himself and his new school. Colorado had offered him a five-year deal worth at least $13.5 million.
Tennessee went after at least two other candidates before hiring Jones.
During the 19-day search to replace Dooley, the Volunteers contacted ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who indicated he wasn’t interested. The Vols then pursued Charlie Strong, who said Thursday he had turned down their offer and would stay at Louisville.
“Rarely in life is anything exactly what it seems to be,” Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. “Life doesn’t throw us all fastballs. It throws us curves, and then you’ve got some screwballs. … You’ve got to be able to adjust.”
Jones, meanwhile, was apparently waiting for a job like Tennessee.
On the same day Strong made his announcement, Jones rejected Colorado’s offer. He also had been linked to the Purdue coaching job before removing himself from consideration.
Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock said Jones told him Thursday morning that he was turning down Colorado. Mere minutes later, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart called Babcock to express his interest in Jones. Babcock said Jones notified him Friday at 5:15 a.m. that he was accepting Tennessee’s offer. Jones informed Cincinnati’s players at a 7:30 a.m. team meeting.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Jones said.
Jones’ hiring means each of the four Southeastern Conference teams that fired coaches this year has filled its vacancy.
Kentucky hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops last week to replace Joker Phillips. Arkansas hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin on Tuesday to take over for John L. Smith. Auburn selected Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn on Tuesday as the replacement for Gene Chizik.
Jones will be Tennessee’s fourth coach in a six-season stretch, not including offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s stint as interim head coach in the 2012 season finale after Dooley’s dismissal. Phillip Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season. Lane Kiffin coached Tennessee in 2009 before leaving for Southern California. Dooley lasted three years.
After winning at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posting double-digit wins in nine of those years, Tennessee hasn’t earned more than seven victories in any of its last five seasons. The Vols went 5-7 this fall for their fifth losing season over the last eight years.
Jones believes Tennessee can recapture its past glory.
“Our fan base and myself have the same expectations,” Jones said. “We’re working to be the best. We’re working to be No. 1 every day. We’re working to be national champions, and we’re working to be SEC champions. This program has done it, and we’ll do it again.”
Hart said at the start of the search that head coaching experience was “critically important” and that he wanted a coach who “knows the difficulty of climbing the ladder in the SEC.” Jones lacks SEC experience, but his teams have earned at least a share of a conference title in four of his six seasons as a head coach.
“Les Miles and Nick Saban had zero SEC experience when they came into this league,” Jones said.
After replacing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and then again at Cincinnati, Jones maintained the momentum his predecessor had established at each school.
In Jones’ three-year stint at Central Michigan, the Chippewas won two Mid-American Conference championships. Jones went 4-8 in his first year at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats are 19-6 since and have tied for first place in the Big East each of the last two seasons. Cincinnati’s 2011 season included a 45-23 loss at Tennessee.
Jones, the third consecutive Cincinnati coach to leave after three years, signed a contract extension after the 2011 season that included a $1.4 million buyout if he left before Jan. 1. Mark Dantonio went 18-17 at Cincinnati from 2004-06 before Michigan State hired him away. Kelly posted a 34-6 record before leaving for Notre Dame.
Cincinnati has made defensive line coach Steve Stripling its interim head coach for the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl against Duke in Charlotte, N.C., while it begins searching for Jones’ successor.
“Obviously we’d like to find somebody who would be committed here for a long time, and I think we’re prepared to make those investments necessary to do that,” Babcock said.
Now that he’s left Cincinnati for Tennessee, Jones has plenty of challenges ahead.
He must restore a sense of order to a program that has lacked stability amid all these coaching changes. He also must win over a fan base that sought a bigger name and doesn’t know much about him beyond the fact his Bearcats couldn’t beat Dooley’s Vols a year ago.
“You don’t move backward,” Hart said. “You move forward. I think that’s what we have to do now as a fan base. Our alumni, our fan base, we’ve got to come back together as one. We’ve got to come back together and get Tennessee football back where we all want it.”
Hart believes he’s found the guy to get Tennessee there, even if he wasn’t the Vols’ first pick.
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